What role will permitted development rights play in shaping our high streets?

The pandemic is accelerating changes to our high streets.  It poses a threat to small businesses that have not been able to open.  However, increased local demand, from people working from home or having to stay within their local neighbourhoods due to lockdown restrictions, presents an opportunity for business.

The planning system could play a key role in shaping high streets of the future to reflect changes in demand by consumers.  There is a risk however that recent changes to planning permitted development rights, along with the introduction of Use Class E, could lead to fragmented development lacking coherence and strategic vision, resulting in an absence of considered, balanced and planned retail and service offerings on our high streets.   

How has the Government responded to changes in demand for commercial floor space in High Streets?

In response to the fall in demand for commercial floor space on high streets and in an attempt to address the national housing crisis, the Government has introduced a variety of permitted development rights, which can be used to convert existing buildings to residential use without requiring express change of use planning permission:

What is the minimum requirement in terms of building standards?

Permitted changes of use from offices to residential has received a lot of negative press, and there have been reports of schemes where some new homes had no windows or had an internal area of only 13 m2.   From 6 April 2021 all applications for prior approval to create new homes under permitted development rights, must now comply with the Nationally Described Space Standard.  Under the Space Standard, for example, the minimum size of a 1-bed, 1-person flat is 37 m2.   

What is the potential impact of new Use Class E?

The introduction last year of new Use Class E represented a major change for high streets.  Use Class E encompasses a wide variety of uses, including retail, cafés and restaurants (excluding gastro pubs and hot food takeaways), offices and professional and other services.  Importantly, unless restricted by a planning condition, changes between uses that now fall within Class E do not require planning permission.

In addition, further changes to permitted development rights, allowing buildings within Use Class E to change to residential use, will come into force on 21 April.  New Class MA will replace other permitted development rights, including Class M and Class O (listed above). 

An application must be made to determine whether the local planning authority's prior approval on a number of issues is required.  Those issues include transport, contamination risks, flooding, noise impacts, and provision of adequate natural light to habitable rooms.    

In order to be eligible, the building must satisfy various criteria, including:

  • being vacant for at least three months before the application for prior approval is made;
  • being within Use Class E (or one of the Uses replaced by Use Class E) for two years before the application for prior approval is made; and
  • the floor space of the existing building must not exceed 1,500 metres.

For offices in an area where an Article 4 Direction is in force to prevent change of use to residential, an application under new Class MA cannot be made until 1 August 2022.  This allows local planning authorities to put new Article 4 Directions in place if they choose to. 

The right does not permit any external alterations to the building to be made to accommodate the new residential use.  Such alterations where they materially affect the building's external appearance would need planning permission. The new homes must also comply with the Nationally Described Space Standard.

Community Infrastructure Levy (if in force in the area) may be payable on new homes created under Class MA, but there is otherwise no requirement to make financial contributions towards infrastructure or to provide affordable housing.    


The application of the Nationally Described Space Standards is welcome and should improve the quality of homes created under permitted development.  However, by allowing buildings in Use Class E to change to residential use, there is a risk that our high streets will be undermined by piecemeal development beyond the control of local planning authorities. 

Whilst some local planning authorities may introduce make Article 4 Directions to restrict permitted development rights, others may take a more interventionalist role in reshaping our high streets and town and city centres.  Stockton Borough Council hit the headlines with its bold plan to demolish the Castlegate Shopping Centre and replace it with an urban park

Local Authorities could also consider making local development orders (LDOs) as a tool to de-risk consenting of development for developers and investors. LDOs grant planning permission for specific types of development in a defined geographical area meaning that developers and investors will not have to navigate the uncertain process of obtaining planning permission provided they develop within the parameters defined in the LDO. 

Get in touch

Our planning team has significant experience in advising on all aspects of strategies for the consenting of development projects including compulsory purchase orders and promoting LDOs and would be happy to discuss this further with you. 

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