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Our Fragile High Streets – Death by Permitted Development Rights?

This resource is part of a collection called Campaign for Healthy Homes.

Mapping Class E: Understanding the Expansion of Permitted Development, by Dr Ben Clifford, Dr Adam Dennett and Bin Chi – Research commissioned by the TCPA into the likely impact of planning deregulation.

Local shops and other commercial buildings are crucially important to the wellbeing of communities. Lively, useful and safe town centres and high streets matter.They are the hearts of our towns and cities – they are where we go to socialise, buy groceries, or access important support services. Neighbourhood corner shops, too, are crucially important resources, especially for those without access to transport.

In recent years, though, high streets across England have been ravaged by the rise of online retailing and the impacts of the COVID-19 epidemic. In response, the government has made bold claims about ‘reinvigorating’ them, ‘levelling up’ ‘left-behind’ places, and ‘building beautiful’. But at the same time as making these claims the government has also stripped away councils’ ability to shape their local places, or ensure that new homes are fit to live in.

It has done this by expanding ‘permitted development rights’ (PDR) which allow buildings of various types to be converted into homes without full planning permission. The dreadful consequences for residents’ and neighbours’ health and wellbeing of delivering homes through PDR are now well established. It is for good reason that such developments have been described as ‘slums of the future’.

Despite this, on 1 August the government will expand permitted development rights so that they cover the vast majority of commercial buildings. For the first time it will be possible for landlords to convert almost all shops, cafés, restaurants, gyms, nurseries and day centres into homes without having to apply for full planning permission. The value of residential development is so high that in many places there will be huge incentives for landlords to do this, and some high streets will be gutted as a result. What has not yet been examined is the likely scale of the change across England. How many shops might we lose as result of the government’s changes to planning?

This is the question this research considered – and the answer is shocking. Examining four case study areas representing different types of built environment across England – Barnet, Crawley, Huntingdonshire, and Leicester – the researchers found that 80.3% of shops and other commercial buildings could be lost to residential conversion.

This figure is as high as 89% for Barnet. In Leicester and Crawley it stands at 77%, and in Huntingdonshire 75%. The full research report contains a series of maps which demonstrate the huge potential impacts on neighbourhoods in each of these places. In some neighbourhoods, entire high streets run the risk of being converted into housing. Clearly, anywhere near this reduction in commercial premises – whether shops, cafés, restaurants, gyms, nurseries, or day centres – would rip the heart out of our communities. And once shops have been converted into homes, they are extremely difficult to convert back.