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New Use Classes: Flexibility for Commercial Property

Fri 4 December 2020

Richard Morgan, Planning and Development Consultant at youngsRPS and Louise Stewart, Director at Silverstone Building Consultancy explain why it is now easier to change the use of a commercial property, what it means for the future of the high street and why you should still seek professional advice.

On 1st September 2020, a major amendment to the Use Classes Order for commercial property came into force in England. The update is a significant change to planning regulations and comes as part of the Government’s wider package of reforms intended to simplify the planning system. It aims to reflect the diverse range of uses now seen in town centres and in turn allow both landlords and tenants to adapt more readily to changing needs.

It had long been recognised that the Use Classes Order (1987, as amended), was out of date and lacked flexibility, particularly when it came to mixed use businesses, which are commonplace for the modern high street as business owners try to keep up with shifting consumer trends and changing market conditions. Clearly the COVID-19 pandemic has brought this issue into sharp focus for the Government, with the associated ‘lockdowns’ and restrictions having a devastating impact on our already struggling high streets. The changes to the order were more radical than many had anticipated based on past Government consultations.

The Use Classes Order now includes three new uses: 
• Class E (commercial, business and service);
• Class F.1 (learning and non-residential institutions); and,
• F.2 (local community). 

Class E has replaced several existing uses, including A1 (shops), A2 (professional and financial services), A3 (restaurants and cafes), B1 (business) and parts of D1 (health, crèches and nurseries) and D2 (indoor sports and recreation). The merging of these use classes means that buildings used for any of these purposes can interchange within Class E without needing planning permission.

There are, however, some notable exclusions from Class E, as drinking establishments (formerly Class A4), hot food takeaways (formerly Class A5) and assembly and leisure (formerly D2) have now become ‘Sui generis’ and will require full planning permission for any change of use. Classes C (residential), B2 (general industrial) and B8 (storage or distribution) remain unchanged.

Commenting on the change, Richard Morgan said: “Giving greater flexibility to the Use Classes Order so that high streets and town centres can adapt quickly to market demand without the need for planning permission is, in principle, very logical. However, it is important town centres remain people focused. New uses should bring footfall to our high streets, ensuring they are vibrant places during the day and into the evening. Only time will tell if the changes have the desired impact - bringing other uses into these centres, such as residential, will also have a significant role to play in achieving this.” 

The amended Order also brings some greater protection from so called ‘nuisance uses’ such as hot foot takeaways and betting shops, but also to those industries that will be particularly vulnerable to change as a direct result of the enduring effects of the pandemic, such as music venues, cinemas and theatres. All of these uses (and others) are ‘Sui generis’ meaning proposals to repurpose these buildings would need full planning permission and consideration as to whether they bring particular benefit to the local community.

Whilst a simplification of the planning process is a welcome change, Louise Stewart at Silverstone believes that there are a number of additional considerations that need to be looked at carefully before the process of repurposing can begin. 

“First and foremost, compliance with Building Regulations can prove to be the biggest challenge of all, especially for buildings which are listed or located with Conservation areas.  Silverstone has recently dealt with a project within a Conservation area where we were unable to change the windows in a property to help increase its thermal efficiency. This resulted in us having to provide secondary glazing to achieve the required U values for Building Control approval, a change which can look unsightly in many cases.

Other factors which can provide further challenges are matters such as fire separation, sound attenuation and waste management.  In urban locations parking is also often a contentious matter and particularly in cases where the use of a property is changing. Whilst the need for planning permission is no longer a concern, these many other issues all require expert handling to comply with current Building Regulations.”

Although the new Use Class Order came into effect on 1st September 2020, there are some complicated transitional arrangements in place until 31st July 2021, for example relating to certain change of use permitted development rights. It should also be considered that existing conditions or legal agreements attached to planning permissions may impose tighter restrictions on uses that will continue to apply. 

If you require further advice from the youngsRPS planning team, or a building consultant at Silverstone, please contact:
Richard Morgan | youngsRPS
Louise Stewart | Silverstone

To read more from our latest edition of Insight Magazine, click here.