New Use Classes Order will bring radical changes

  • Author: Matthew Poplett
  • Date: 23rd September 2020

Radical changes to our planning system have been introduced, overhauling the previous long-standing Use Classes Order. These changes have been made to increase flexibility in the hope of supporting the recovery of our high streets and towns.

The new provisions, which came into force on 1 September 2020, allow significantly greater flexibility to change property uses within towns across England without the need to obtain planning permission. We’re waving goodbye to Classes A1, A2, A3, B1, D1 and D2, all of which have been revoked in favour of a new Class E: ‘commercial business and service’.

This new class will cover a wide range of uses including: retail, financial and professional services, cafés and restaurants (currently A1-A3); offices, research and development and light industrial (currently B1); clinics, health centres and nurseries (currently D1) and indoor sport and recreation (currently D2).

Two other new use classes will be introduced: Class F1 (learning and non-residential institutions), which currently sit within use class D1, and F2 (local community), which currently sits within use class D2.

There have been some exclusions from Class E to protect uses with community value, for example, cinemas and bingo halls (currently D2) and also to prevent unrestricted conversion to those uses with potential negative externalities, for example, drinking establishments (currently A4) and hot food takeaways (currently A5). These now fall within Sui Generis use and will need planning permission for change of use to or from.

This new system will allow landlords, and tenants to a degree, to keep pace with our changing retail, office and leisure market, enabling redundant accommodation to be repurposed into a viable alternative. Landlords are likely to benefit, being able to pick and choose the most valuable use for their property and will potentially be able to re-let previously redundant space. However, whilst many positive changes are likely to occur, will such an open policy reduce the range of services our high streets have to offer?

Local authorities have always previously retained an element of power to influence the use class of a building. When the government announced, in 2015, that office buildings could automatically be converted into residential accommodation through Permitted Development Rights, we saw the subsequent introduction of Article 4 Directions, which provided localised powers to prevent such conversion and protect employment areas. Only time will tell if such an opportunity will arise for local authorities to soften the impact of this new legislation, however, it is likely that many councils will want some input in shaping their built environment.

Whilst these changes have been made in the hope of supporting the recovery of our high streets and towns, the effects will be far reaching. For example, an edge of town light industrial unit will no longer need a change of use to become an Aldi or a Lidl supermarket. Out of town retail (including supermarkets) has long been criticised for the demise of the high street, so it seems somewhat surreal that this use has just been given carte blanche to fill light industrial or office space without the need for planning consent.

External changes to a building will still of course need planning consent and local authorities may use these powers to also try to control use. We have also heard of situations where developers are being asked to sign agreements by local authorities saying that they will not take advantage of the new E Class use, and the lawfulness of such agreements are sure to be tested in the courts.

It is early days for the new E Class use, but dramatic changes must surely follow this fundamental change to the planning system.

Existing planning consents, planning obligations and leases may contain conditions that prevent the new E class being fully utilised. Hellier Langston are well placed to advise both landlords and tenants of the potential pitfalls, so please get in touch to find out more.

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