High street planning changes designed to reignite our town centres

Government has promised a fundamental review of high street planning policy, with a focus on use classes and permitted development rights. Christopher Tennant, GL Hearn's Head of Planning for London, sheds light on the changes, due to come into effect from 1 September, and considers the implication for our town centres.

What government has proposed this week is arguably the most radical change in town centre planning for some thirty years. Aimed at supporting the recovery and re-imagination of our high streets and town centres post-COVID-19, the focus is loud and clear - it is all about flexibility, and the proposed changes in town centre use classes will enable this much needed flexibility by removing the requirement to obtain planning permission.

New Use Classes

The changes provide for three new uses classes: Class E (commercial, business and services), Class F.1 (learning and non-residential institutions) and F.2 (local community).

The new Class E would subsume the existing Class A1 (Shops), Class A2 (Financial and professional services), Class A3 (Restaurants and cafes), and Class B1 (Business) use classes, the regulations say.

The regulations also create new use classes F1 and F2.

Class F1 relates to "learning and non-residential institutions" and includes any non-residential use for the 'provision of education, for the display of works of art (otherwise than for sale or hire), as a museum, as a public library or public reading room, as a public hall or exhibition hall, for, or in connection with, public worship or religious instruction, as a law court'.

Class F2 relates to 'local community' uses. These are listed in the regulations as 'a shop mostly selling essential goods, including food, to visiting members of the public in circumstances where the shop's premises cover an area not more than 280 metres square, and there is no other such facility within 1,000 metre radius of the shop's location'. 

They also include 'a hall or meeting place for the principal use of the local community, an area or place for outdoor sport or recreation, not involving motorised vehicles or firearms, an indoor or outdoor swimming pool or skating rink'.

The changes allow such uses to change to another use within the class without planning consent.


There are exemptions. These include any 'public house, wine bar, or drinking establishment', 'drinking establishment with expanded food provisions', 'hot food takeaways, live music venues, cinemas, concert halls, bingo halls and dance halls'. 

Consequences of the new use classes

This is a pivotal moment in time, where local authorities will need to think differently about their plans for the development of their high streets and how they integrate them into with the wider town centre offer; from September they will no longer have such rigid control through their Development Plans over the mix of uses lining their high streets.

Traditionally, local authority development plans have closely protected the Class A1 shops on the high street, they have been the drivers of convenience for many local communities and guarded against rapidly leaking footfall out to competing shopping destinations and so restricting change of use has been a key ingredient in the mix.

Now, this new found flexibility will be a welcome step change for landlords where they have struggled to fill empty properties as a result of policy restrictions. It will open the field for a number of potential occupiers who would otherwise have not been able to establish themselves in central locations due to the protection of A1 retail use. Of course, it will remain open to local planning authorities to control changes of use where permission is required for external works; through conditions attached to new planning permissions; as well as conditions on existing permissions or S106 agreements which prevent changes of use.

Whilst retail has been seen the main attraction of our town centres, this new approach from government really does refocus the planning strategies for local authorities in the wake of COVID-19. Local authorities need to pay more attention to finding new uses to replace some of the retail and commercial uses which, for too long, have propped up the towns centres they are part of.

Supporting Planning Policy guidance will be published to accompany the changes to the UCO in September and the content of that will be important in steering local planning authorities in applying the Order and adapting their strategies for planning the wider future of town centres.
Change to the Use Classes Order is undoubtedly overdue as our economy has evolved a long way from the days of the traditional high street retail scene of the mid-1980s.

Whether the proposed changes will enable those high streets to re-invent and re-invigorate themselves remains to be seen but they open a number of opportunities for all those involved in the built environment and we look forward to helping existing and new clients to optimise their positions accordingly. 

Form more information on Use Class Order please do get in touch.

The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020