Living the high (street) life

All that is gold does not glitter. Sometimes even the dullest sounded policy names actually contain exciting possibilities. So it is with a little-known planning permission policy called ‘Permitted Development Rights’ that allowed a change of use from office space to residential. PDRs come from rights not given by local authorities but from parliament. 

The allowance of change of use began as a temporary order, under the Coalition government but, after the period showed a rise in the numbers of homes being created at a time for decreased demand for office space, the Conservative government in 2016 decided to make it permanent. It was a small change but it has been instrumental in helping the government meet its 200,000 new homes per year target. It is also a change that is helping towns and cities provide young people with new and affordable homes. 

But there are a couple of issues with it. Firstly, commercial areas are still exempt and will be until 30 May 2019. This means places like the City of London, Westminster and other inner London Boroughs have time to apply for what is known in the jargon as an Article 4 Directions to remove the Right in their area (what everyone else would call a special exemption and protectionism). 

Secondly, it doesn’t go far enough. Permitted Development Rights are aimed at redundant office space, allowing quick and efficient transfer between use of a building. But it leaves A1 and A2 (in human speak this is what we call shops) requiring change of use to receive prior approval from (and subject to objection) local authorities. There is also still a space limitation of just 150sqm on the transfer from shop to residential. Yet reported vacancy rates on our high streets stand at 11.1% in England, 11.9% in Scotland and 14.5% in Wales and the Federation of Master Builders estimated that we could build nearly 400,000 homes if we converted these empty shops. We have the untenable situation where shops on high streets are boarded up and left to rot while people are clamouring for somewhere good, convenient and affordable to live.

And when people have moved in, guess what they will need? Places to eat, drink, socialise, buy their groceries, their DIY supplies. And they’ll want to work near to where they live and have community spaces that draw people in. Getting people back living in the centre of town will be a boost for businesses of all forms there. 

We should all welcome the return of people living in our cities. Cities filled with young, educated, and skilled workers are more productive. Creating more choice for workers that don’t fancy a long commute but do fancy living where they socialise. Not to mention that creating more opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship could help Britain’s cities boost the country back up the productivity league. 

We can breathe life back into the high street, provide affordable homes, boost Britain’s productivity and do it simply. Let’s extend Permitted Development Rights to allow empty shops to become houses and get back to those streets paved with gold.