New Permitted Development Rights: Convert Commercial to Residential

New freedoms to support high streets and fast track delivery of schools and hospitals across England were announced on the 31st March 2021.

  • Lincoln High Street

The new rules, announced by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick, state that new permitted development rights will allow unused commercial premises to be converted into homes via a fast-track prior approval package of measures designed to revitalise England's high streets and help them to adapt and thrive.

The changes represent an expansion of the current permitted development rights, which already allow developments, like the conversion of office blocks to residential accommodation, to go ahead without a full planning application. It is intended to take effect from 1st August 2021. The right will apply in Conservation Areas, but not in other protected land listed in Article 2(3) of the GPDO (General Permitted Development (Order)) which includes national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Existing Article 4 directions preventing changes of use from office to residential will continue to have effect until 31 July 2022.

Why the changes?

  • The new planning law enables unused commercial buildings to be changed into homes
  • Will provide much-needed new homes across England and attract footfall to high streets
  • New planning rules allowing for the speedy extension, of valued public buildings including schools, colleges, universities and hospitals
  • Part of a wider package of government measures introduced to help high streets and town centres recover after lockdown and create the most small business friendly planning regime in the world.
  • Support the hundreds of jobs that depend on housing and construction

Conditions to qualify:

In order to qualify for the permitted development right the commercial premises must have been:

  • In a Commercial Business and Service use (within the new Use Class E) for at least two years; and
  • vacant for 3 months before the date of application for prior approval.
  • The amount of floor space which can change use under the new right will be limited to 1,500 square metres of floor space in order to focus the right on medium sized high street sites.

Local authority’s considerations:

Although the new laws will take a lot of powers away from local councils, ‘the right’ (to convert/develop) will still be open for local consideration by the local planning authorities for specific planning matters through the ‘prior approval’ process in terms of:

  • Flood risks in relation to the building;
  • Contamination risks in relation the building;
  • Transport impacts of the development, particularly to ensure safe site access;
  • Impacts of noise from commercial premises on the intended occupiers of the development;
  • Provision of adequate natural light to all habitable rooms;
  • In conservation areas only – impact of that change of use on the character and sustainability of the conservation area;
  • Impact of the loss of health centres and registered nurseries on the provision of such local services.

Other measures announced included:

  • a new fast track for extending public service buildings including schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and for the first time prison buildings by up to 25% of the existing footprint of the cumulative buildings on the site, or 250 square metres, whichever is greater. The existing height restriction on new buildings is also being increased from 5 metres to 6 metres;
  • relaxation of planning rules to allow pubs and restaurants to operate as takeaways;
  • planning freedoms to allow outdoor markets, marquees, pop-up summer fairs without the need of a planning application;
  • £56 million Welcome Back Fund to help boost the look and feel of high streets and seaside towns;
  • longer opening hours for retail to provide flexibility and reduce pressures on transport;
  • extension of provisions for temporary pavement licences to facilitate alfresco dining;
  • amendment of existing permitted development rights for ports so that they have the same freedoms as airports for undertaking development;
  • amendments to the demolition permitted development right to ensure the removal of unlisted heritage assets is subject to due process and proper consultation via planning.