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CIOB sounds alarm over planning law relaxation

Image: Dreamstime/Jose Alberto Barco Figari

The Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) and other professional bodies have sounded the alarm over government plans to relax planning laws to make it easier for commercial premises to be converted into homes.

In a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, jointly signed by the CIOB, the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), and Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), the professional bodies warned that the plans presented a risk to small businesses and town centres and fail “to consider the public good”.

The letter came after an announcement before Easter by the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) that planning permission will not be required to convert commercial buildings to residential use from August this year.

The announcement came before responses to the Planning for the Future white paper or a consultation on the new regulations had been published.

In a planning newsletter, chief planner Joanna Averley explained: “To further the government’s objective to support and diversify town centres, we laid regulations on 31 March 2021 to create a new permitted development right to enable the change of use from the new Class E to residential use to help support housing delivery and enable more homes to be created in town centres. The right will have effect from 1 August 2021. It is subject to a size limit of 1,500 sq m of floorspace changing use and applies to buildings that have been in a Class E use for two years, including time in former uses now within that class.

“To protect viable businesses, the right only applies to buildings that have been continuously vacant for at least three months. And to protect local amenity, the right is subject to prior approval by the local planning authority on a range of planning matters….

“To help deliver improvements to public service infrastructure the 31 March regulations also amend permitted development rights to allow for larger extensions to schools, colleges, universities, hospitals and, for the first time, prisons. In addition, we have made further changes to align the permitted development rights for ports and airports to help deliver Freeports.”

But the professional bodies including the CIOB said the government’s plans “present a risk for our nation’s town centres and small businesses”.

It said: “Without the usual checks and balances through the normal planning process and without the facility for local communities to comment on proposals, this risks creating poor-quality housing.

“These measures will pull the rug out from under high street businesses that you have supported throughout unprecedented circumstances. Just as they prepare to reopen with our great unlocking, their future is put in peril. It is counterproductive for the government to commit to reviewing business rates – with the express goal of keeping more businesses on our high streets – while simultaneously incentivising property owners to push them out. Businesses, developers, residents and the built environment sector have all had serious concerns about these proposals from the start.

“Attempting to engage productively, the RTPI, RIBA, CIOB and RICS set out safeguards that could at least minimse the harm. None of this evidence appears to have been given consideration. No basic impact assessment of how this might harm our communities appears to have been done. Additionally, the government has ignored the responses to its own consultation to rush this substantial change to our highstreets during Parliamentary recess. This announcement fails to consider the public good and demonstrates a lack of any forethought for those who will be affected. This is not only a failure to ‘level up’, but a threat to our local communities. We ask you to urgently reconsider these measures.”

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