26 September 2014 was the closing date for consultation on proposals further to deregulate our planning system.
The Government’s wish and commitment to improve the current planning system and to encourage sensible use of existing, currently under-utilised, buildings is to be applauded, but are the proposals to relax the controls on change of use even further likely to dilute too far the powers of local authorities?
By a temporary change in permitted development rights certain existing buildings (except listed buildings and certain other specified types of property) which were in use or were last used as offices as at 30 May 2013 can be converted to residential use without obtaining planning permission for the change provided the conversion is completed by 30 May 2016. The Government is proposing to extend this time period until May 2019, to allow time for developers to complete conversions under these new rules.
This permitted development right is subject to a prior notification procedure to the local planning authority who must respond within 56 days. During that period the intended change will be advertised and a consultation process will be carried out. The local planning authority will consider the potential impact of the loss of office accommodation as a result of conversion on such matters as highways, contamination, flooding and any other relevant planning grounds. In deciding whether to confirm that prior approval is not required, granting prior approval or refusing approval the authority can impose any conditions they consider important on the way in which a conversion is done. This procedure also allows adjoining owners the opportunity to comment and object, albeit on limited grounds.
Certain areas of the UK are currently outside the temporary scheme, most notably central London, but these areas may be brought within the regime soon. Local planning authorities may also decide to disapply these new rights although this is at the risk of being liable to pay compensation to a developer if planning permission is refused which would otherwise have been permitted under these rules.
There is an argument that the loss of office space could be a mistake as, even though not currently required, conversions could limit the availability of suitable property if and when there is renewed demand for commercial space. This could not only have a dramatic financial effect but also change the character of a town or area. In addition many believe that by converting properties under this scheme developers can avoid responsibilities normally imposed on new build developments such as to contribute funding for infrastructure and affordable housing.
It is unclear whether these temporary relaxations of the planning regime will indeed spur or frustrate economic growth. Only time will tell.