Planning Use Class changes – flexibility going forward?


Last week the Government announced sweeping changes to the Use Classes planning system in England, which has been well established for over 30 years. The changes which take effect on 1 September 2020, subject to a transitional period to 31 July 2021, are substantial to reflect the increasing diversity of town centres and are aimed at providing flexibility to businesses, particularly in response to the economic impact of the pandemic.

The current system has four main Use Classes categories; Class A – retail, food and drink, Class B – offices and other places of work, Class C – places of residence and Class D – institutions and leisure uses. The result of the changes will be out with the individual commercial classifications of Classes A1, A2, A3 and B1 and in with a new use class, to be known as Class E ‘Commercial, Business and Service’. Class E will cover a range of uses including retail (A1), cafes and restaurants (A2), financial and professional services (A3), offices (B1), indoor sport and recreation, medical or health services (to visiting members of the public), crèche, day nursery and day centres (D1 and D2).

With such a wide breadth this has, effectively, reduced the planning controls to the position where the ‘market will decide’ what is suitable and commercially viable for the high street. This flexibility is likely to be welcome to many town centres owners, making it easier to obtain a tenant of an empty retail unit for an alternative Use Class E use without the need for planning permission. However this could result in the dilution of areas that were, previously, allocated as high street retail shops with former shop units being converted into non-retail functions.

The changes are likely to have a wider impact on the property market for landlords and tenants, with many rent reviews based on comparable evidence of specific uses, linked to a designated Use Class. The breadth of Class E could lead to some unexpected results. Outside the planning regime tenant’s may want to consider whether they want to vary the use limitations in their existing leases, which may not provide them with the flexibility proposed by the legislation.

However, there are some noteworthy exclusions from Class E, which have been moved to the ‘sui generis’ Class, meaning that specific planning permission will need to be obtained. The exclusions include drinking establishments (formerly A4), ‘hot food takeaways’ (A5) and cinemas and bingo halls (D2). With growing concerns about obesity in the population the hot food take away exclusion was expected and the removal of pubs and cinemas is to ensure long term protection of premises that have substantial community value.

There are to be new Use Classes F1 and F2; Class F1 – schools, libraries and galleries which are regularly in the wider public use (former D1) and Class F2 – ’local community uses’ which is to include uses such as swimming pools, skating rinks and areas for outdoor sports (former D2) and local community space. Some areas are to remain materially unchanged; Class C – residential purposes, general industrial (Class B1) and storage and distribution (Class B8).

Operationally flexibility is welcome in these times of uncertainly, removing constraints to support and promote innovation and to revitalise high streets. However, as a cautionary comment, due to the dilution of control and concerns about the mix of uses in certain areas it may transpire that Councils will use statutory powers to impose limitations, like Article 4 Directions which remove permitted development rights. Hopefully those powers will only be used sparingly, where commercially appropriate. Over the next few months it certainly seems to be one of watch this space.

Click here to view our use classes guide.


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