2021 has seen growing political agitation over an issue that seems to be uniting Conservative and Labour MPs and local authorities as well as residents’ associations. The Government’s introduction on 1 August of new Permitted Development Rights (Class MA) permits the change of use from commercial, business use and service use (Class E) to residential use (Class C). This followed the creation in 2020 of planning use class E, which drew together a range of different commercial activities into one use class to facilitate greater flexibility.

The use of PDR is one tool in the armoury of a government that is determined to deliver a step-change in housing delivery and greater flexibility for change within commercial property but it is encountering strong, cross-party resistance.

Objectors’ concerns centre on the following arguments:

  • That PDR undermines local authorities’ ability to set out and deliver a vision for development that meets local needs
  • That PDR schemes are often of lower quality design
  • That the layout of buildings to be converted under PDR – often offices – does not often lend itself to the creation of good quality homes
  • That local authorities receive fewer Section 106 payments as a result of PDR, limiting their ability to improve local infrastructure

The Government’s move has received criticism from across the political spectrum. In a Westminster Hall debate on 15 July Nickie Aiken, a former Leader of Westminster City Council (a Tory flagship borough) and current MP for the Cities of London & Westminster, said that the introduction of planning use class E as well as PDR “… makes it now significantly more difficult for local authorities to influence the way in which areas develop”.

Conservative-run councils have also expressed concerns: A report published by the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea has said that “the Council is concerned that, unfettered, the new system of prior approval will result in the significant loss of the borough’s stock of office floorspace …; development which will harm the vitality and viability of our town centres; the widespread loss of smaller shops …; a reduction in the diversity of uses in the borough … and the loss of 14,600 office jobs.”

Labour politicians are also mounting their own resistance to PDR. Rachel Hopkins, Labour MP for Luton South has introduced a ten-minute rule bill which would, among other things: ‘… grant local authorities power to apply local design standards for permitted development and to refuse permitted development proposals that would be detrimental to the health and wellbeing of an individual or community’.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has also been very critical. During the Mayor’s question time session on February 10th he stated that the new class MA “… could result in the eviction of countless high street businesses, disruption to hundreds and thousands of jobs and the closure of nurseries and medical centres”. He also supports a coordinated approach to introducing Article 4 directions to help local authorities remove permitted development rights in specific geographical areas (these are statements made under the Town & Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order of 1995) and “… in liaison with London Councils and the boroughs continues to provide strategic support to help the boroughs achieve this”.

Resistance is also coming from a range of residents’ organisations, including many in so-called ‘Blue Wall’ Tory seats in the Homes Counties. For example, the Guildford Society has said of PDR: “The impact could be dramatic in Guildford, with retail or office sites being converted to housing. An issue that PDRs don’t address is that many commercial buildings don’t make good living spaces, being in the wrong location, dependent on air conditioning, or have been built to building standards that are at variance with those required for housing.”

The changes to PDR sit alongside the major changes that the Secretary of State for MHCLG, Robert Jenrick, hopes to make through the upcoming Planning Bill. These two sets of changes will, he hopes, deliver a step-change in housing development and help to drive business growth by creating greater flexibility within commercial property.

They have also placed him at odds with many Tory MPs and councils as well as other stakeholder groups – who play an important role in shaping public opinion. Tory MPs did not get the chance to vote against the PDR changes as these were introduced through secondary legislation. They will, however, get the chance to vote against the Planning Bill.  The evidence so far is that the concerns aroused by the PDR are going to make it harder for Robert Jenrick to secure a passage through the House of Commons for that legislation.