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High Street Shops to Become Homes in Planning Law Shake-Up

Do you own a high street property? Could our high streets become purely residential? Controversial, new planning laws enabling unused commercial buildings to be converted into homes are being put into law, the Government Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has announced.

Rather than needing full planning permission, the new planning regulations will enable unused commercial buildings with a floor space of 1,500 square meters or less, to be converted into residential buildings via a simpler ‘prior approval’ process.

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.

Estimates have put the number of new homes needed in England at 345,000 per year. The Government believes allowing unused commercial buildings to be changed into homes will help meet these targets while also rejuvenating our high streets enabling more people to come to the area for work and leisure.

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:

  • Flooding
  • Impacts of noise from commercial premises
  • Provision of adequate natural light to all habitable rooms
  • In conservation areas only – consideration of the impact of the loss of the ground floor Commercial, Business and Service use
  • Impact of the loss of health centres and registered nurseries on the provision of such local services

To protect against mass overdevelopment of our high streets, the new laws also include a ‘vacancy requirement’ that will ensure the building changing use has been vacant for three months before the date of the application to protect businesses currently renting those premises.

The building must also have been in ‘commercial business and service’ use for two years before benefiting from the right to change its use.

This news is obviously great news for high street landlords who want to develop their properties. However, despite the Government’s assurances that their protection measures will prevent the system from being abused, there is a lot of industry disquiet about these changes.

For example, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) says the new Permitted Development rights allowing change of use from commercial, business and service uses (Class E) to residential use (C3) in England, risks ‘tearing at the fabric of local communities and jeopardising the vibrancy of high streets.’

Chief Executive of the RTPI, Victoria Hills, said: “I fear that these new regulations will be a golden gift for unscrupulous landlords and developers who will be falling over themselves to make a quick buck on residential conversions. It will do nothing for our high streets if all ground floor commercial units are turned into homes.”

In a joint letter, the RTPI, together with the Royal Institute of British Architects, The Chartered Institute of Builders and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors have pressed the prime minister to ‘urgently reconsider the measures’ to protect businesses who ‘just as they prepare to reopen with our great unlocking, their future is put in peril.’

These concerns are backed up by data from PwC showing that Great Britain’s high streets lost more than 17,500 chain store outlets in 2020. An average of 48 shops, restaurants and other leisure and hospitality venues closed permanently every day across England, Wales and Scotland, while only 21 opened, its research found.


Additional Planning Measures Announced

The new planning laws are part of a package of measures announced by Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick that include new planning rules allowing for the speedy extension, of ‘valued public buildings’ such as schools. The new rules allow for bigger extensions to existing public buildings including schools, colleges, universities and hospitals helping to quickly deliver more classrooms and hospital space. This, the Government says, will help deliver more classrooms and hospital space by enabling them to extend further and faster, as we emerge from the pandemic.

Communities Secretary Rt Hon Robert Jenrick MP, said: “We are creating the most small-business-friendly planning system in the world to provide the flexibility needed for high streets to bounce back from the pandemic. 

“By diversifying our town and city centres and encouraging the conversion of unused shops into cafes, restaurants or even new homes, we can help the high street to adapt and thrive for the future.”

This announcement further supports a series of recently announced measures introduced to help high streets recover once lockdown restrictions are lifted, which include:

  • The £56 million Welcome Back Fund designed to help boost the look and feel of high streets and seaside towns
  • The 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
  • Longer opening hours for retail to give shoppers more flexibility and ease transport pressures
  • Extension of provisions for temporary pavement licences to facilitate alfresco dining


Further information

  1. The right to convert shops and other commercial property into homes is set to come into force from 1 August 2021.
  2. 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.
  3. Where there is an existing Article 4 direction on 31 July 2021 in respect of the change of use from offices to residential (under Class O) it will continue to have an effect on equivalent development in respect of offices (now within the Commercial Business and Service use class) until 31 July 2022.



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Alex Wright, Editor