From Cummings to the High Court: the battle over town centres

Alex Wray

Account Manager

Dominic Cummings built himself a reputation as a maverick thinker, pulling the strings of government from behind the scenes. However, his relationship with that Government has fallen apart since he left Downing Street in November 2020. The former chief advisor’s spat with the Prime Minister has played out very publicly on national TV, and his comments regarding Boris Johnson’s leadership and handling of the coronavirus pandemic have received thousands of column inches.

With the manner of Cummings’ departure overshadowing all else, less attention has been paid to evaluating his impact in Government, outside of huge issues such as Brexit. He has instead been left to share his own thoughts on the changes he oversaw on social media. Cummings recently responded to a tweet suggesting that meaningful planning reform was not going to be achieved. Cummings rebuked this by proclaiming that meaningful planning reform had already been made through amendments to secondary legislation and quietly pushed through last year. While he did not expand any further or give any clarity, he is likely to be referring to changes to Permitted Development Rights (PDR).

PDR allow certain types of development to take place without the submission of a planning application to the local authority. In July 2020, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, Robert Jenrick, announced that all office, retail, and light industrial space would be grouped into a new development class, E. This came into effect in September 2020 and meant that planning applications to convert a Class E building into another Class E building (for example the conversion of an office space to retail) were no longer required. The Government went even further in December 2020 when they announced another new use class – Class MA. This would allow Class E buildings to be converted into residential accommodation without a planning application. This new use class came into force this month.

Proponents of the new PDR say that retail-to-residential conversions will enable the rapid delivery of new homes needed to help solve the housing crisis. This would also result, in theory, in an exponential increase in affordable homes being built. It is also argued that these new PDR will help stop the decline that high streets have been experiencing in recent years, by diversifying the building types that are located on the high street. The reuse of empty brownfield sites in the centre of towns will also reduce the pressure facing local authorities to sanction development on green belt land.

The new PDR have also been widely condemned however, with numerous leaders in planning, property, and commercial sectors speaking out. These critics argue that unchecked office/retail to residential conversion will lead to the rapid construction of poor-quality homes that lack any oversight or standards, as well as driving out existing retail businesses and permanently destroying the fabric of local communities. Instead, they argue that a long-term strategic plan is needed for town centre regeneration, with councils retaining control over the planning and development that occurs.

Unsurprisingly, this disagreement has led to a bitter political dispute. In July, the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee called for a halt in the roll out of the expanded PDR, however the Government committed to carry on. As a result, seventeen London councils indicated that they would implement Article 4 directions to designate areas as exempt from PDR. An article 4 direction is a direction under article 4 of the General Permitted Development Order which would enable the Councils to withdraw specified permitted development rights across a defined area. The Government responded by updating the National Planning Policy Framework to make it harder for Article 4 directions to apply, especially over larger geographical areas such as town centres. The dispute looks set to head to the courts with the London Borough of Islington launching a legal challenge.

The stakes for all parties could not be higher. Cummings and Johnson promised to radically overhaul the planning system in the Conservative 2019 election campaign. With future planning reforms uncertain of political support, changes to PDR may be all that can be delivered, and the Government will be desperate to see them through. This is a battle for control between local authorities and the Government, and it will decide the future of our town centres.

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