The government’s newly announced plans to revitalise highstreets by allowing commercial premises to be converted into homes, without a full planning application, is a major gamble according to leading independent property firm, Adair Paxton.

The new planning laws, announced by Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick at the end of March, allow commercial buildings in England, that fall under the E classification, to be converted into homes following a basic prior approval process.

This latest legislation follows major changes to commercial property classes that were introduced in September 2020, that determine how a property can be used. It now means most retail units, cafes, restaurants, offices, clinics, health centres, day nurseries, gyms, lots of indoor recreation centres and light industrial units in England, all now have the same E classification. This means they can all be used for other purposes, without having to apply to change their use, under the E classification.

Adair Paxton’s commercial division sells and lets a full range of commercial property including high street retail units and office buildings. Director, Simon Dalingwater, explained: “These latest changes mean properties under the E classification can now be converted into homes without a planning application, which is part of the government’s latest bid to revitalise highstreets and towns centres.

“The only restrictions are that it is limited to properties under 1,500 square metres in size and they must have been empty for three months prior to the change. However, it is immediately attracting criticism from the likes of the Town and Country Planning Association (TCPA), the British Property Federation (BPF), the Royal Town Planning Institute and RIBA.

“Whereas allowing businesses to repurpose commercial buildings without applying for a change of use largely makes sense, as it makes it much easier for businesses to find suitable premises, as well as bringing more variety into high streets, converting such properties into homes is a very different scenario.

“Most of the critics are concerned that removing businesses from high streets and replacing them with sporadically placed homes will break up shop frontages, as well as reducing footfall, which will all cause further damage to our already fragile highstreets. It is certainly a valid argument and especially because the approval process gives local authorities a very limited set of criteria that they can use to refuse applications. This includes a lack of natural light as well as the impact on flooding or the provision of healthcare services.”

Simon added: “Many highstreets throughout Yorkshire and beyond now find themselves at a pivotal point as they strive to attract high levels of footfall again and businesses prepare to reopen from the latest lockdown.

“Both local authorities and the government will have to monitor these changes closely and if large numbers of commercial premises suddenly become homes under the E classification, it will require an urgent review in order to determine the potential impact.”

Commenting on the latest changes, Robert Jenrick said: “We are creating the most small business friendly planning system in the world to provide the flexibility needed for high streets to bounce back from the pandemic.

“By diversifying our town and city centres and encouraging the conversion of unused shops into cafes, restaurants or even new homes, we can help the high street to adapt and thrive for the future.”