Planning rules expose conservation areas to development

The government has introduced new planning rules that will allow commercial high-street properties to be converted into housing without full planning applications from August 1. Although it has been possible to convert retail properties in the past, any conversion into residential use required full planning permission. The new homes will now be able to proceed through a simpler “prior approval” process.

The government has said this action has been taken to “help cement our high streets and town centres in the rightful place at the heart of our communities”.

The laws follow the increase in high-street vacancies. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses have closed or switched to online retailing only, such as Topshop and Debenhams. More than 17,500 chain stores closed in 2020 alone. The rules state that after a building has been vacant for three months, it can be converted.

According to Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick, the rules “will help support the creation of much-needed homes while also giving high streets a new lease of life”.

The public, however, are split on this issue. Some argue that well-maintained residences are more beneficial to their communities than dilapidated shopfronts, while others claim that allowing homeowners to snatch up these properties will discourage small businesses and lead to the end of the high street as we know it.

The Royal Institute of British Architects said that the new legislation would cause “further damage to suffering high streets by turning essential community amenities into, all too often, substandard homes”. Residential properties do not provide footfall, revenue or employment for communities, and they remove locations for community assets or new businesses.

Within Oundle, long vacant properties such as the former NatWest bank could be converted to residential use.

The new right will not apply to listed buildings. But other buildings within the conservation area will be exempt from heritage considerations.

Ingrid Samuel, heritage director at the National Trust said that councils will be practically powerless. “We’re particularly disappointed that these changes will also apply in conservation areas, where extra care should be taken to safeguard local history and beauty.”

Noa Anderson
May 2021