Government changes threaten the future of our high streets says Bucks Council

This change would make local authorities 'powerless', the council says.

By James Lowson
Monday, 5th July 2021, 11:45 am
Updated Monday, 5th July 2021, 11:58 am

Bucks Council leader, Martin Tett has written to the government urging a pause on proposed changes to planning rules.

Councillor Tett has contacted Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), in opposition to planning changes set for August 1.

Boris Johnson included in last month’s Queen’s speech plans to overhaul England’s planning system. The plans would give housebuilders freedom to build over designated “growth” zones.

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Bucks Council Leader, Martin Tett

The council says, that the proposed new rules will effectively give developers the green light to automatically convert retail or commercial space along prime high streets into residential use without needing planning permission.

The new planning rules mean developers will not need to get planning permission and can automatically replace retail space in key shopping locations with residential units under ‘permitted development’. Meaning that using new national rules, they will automatically be allowed to go ahead without any consultation or permission needed at a local level.

Councillor Tett has acknowledged that with shopping patterns changing in the future many High Street shops may need to be repurposed for residential use. Yet the Council Leader believes the government should take a different approach.

"Giving automatic rights to convert prime retail space into residential space removes any local power for communities or councils to take measures to protect and invigorate our main high streets. National rules will squash our local voices” says Martin Tett.

“We simply should not take a ‘one size fits all’ national approach to this.This proposed change risks putting power completely in the hands of developers and leaves local communities and local authorities powerless to shape the future of prime high streets in our towns and villages.

"Each town and each high street have their own dynamic, their own evolving retail footprint and its own place at the heart of our communities – high streets are part of the hyper local economy of a town or a village.

“Without the vital sanity check and safety net coming from local authorities, it could be open season for developers to break up and fragment key high street frontages and change the balance of our town centres. The Government’s proposed change to the planning system threatens the very core of what we are seeking to achieve in Buckinghamshire in protecting and renewing our high streets and shaping the future look and feel of what our town centres have to offer. “

UK planning control includes an 'article 4 direction' where councils can protect the character of an area which might be under threat – typically in its conservation areas. For example, this has been used to protect the older parts including medieval streets in High Wycombe.

An article 4 direction reduces the scope of permitted development and raises the bar that means most changes would require planning permission. This would provide some protection; however it takes anywhere between one and two years to put an Article 4 protection into place.

Councillor Tett is urging the Secretary of State to pause the introduction of the proposed changes by a minimum of one year to allow councils the time needed to enact Article 4 to protect high streets.

The Council argues that, businesses are now to be placed at added risk by this new planning rule and an urgent resolution is needed.

The Council used Amersham is a case study for why it is opposed to these rules. In Amersham the prime high street is being threatened with the loss of key large retail units currently used by Waterstones and Superdrug.

It argues there is no suitable replacement local units and it is likely that both stores will leave the town. That the presence of these brands is pivotal to other smaller and independent shops opening in the town. If virtually unlimited conversion from retail to residential is allowed, then we could face the very real prospect of the prime shopping frontage being broken up and centres rendered unviable.

Martin Tett has invited the Secretary of State or any of the civil servants working on the new rules to come and see these issues in practice by making a visit to Amersham or any of the towns in Buckinghamshire to see the issues for themselves.