3 February 2022

From Permitted Development to Arrested Development – The slow suffocation of the local high street

It’s always the way, isn’t it? Bring in new rules, and some smartarse has to abuse them. And such was the case when the 2015 permitted development rules were made permanent. All it took was a cost-cutting developer to take over a project, and the new residents could whistle for adequate lighting and room to swing a cat.  

A radical overhaul of the rules was needed, and the largest changes hit the press on 1st August, 2021. New rules demanded specific standards for natural light and space within properties, ensuring more quality living conditions for tenants. 

So far, so good. But the story doesn’t end there. 

Although these new rules addressed the abuses, at the same time they also sucked in other class E use buildings – former shop premises, restaurants, offices and cafes – as suitable for conversion into residential dwellings without any sort of permission.  

The reaction to this particular slice of the pie has been not only mixed, but vocal and powerful. 

Leading the cavalry is Ben Derbyshire, past president of RIBA. As an architect and passionate pusher of sculpting the cityscape with intelligent builds for the community, he’s more than upset with the very real potential for disaster that the high street faces. 

 “Policy makers seem to have overlooked the consequences of a parallel policy stream,” he says, “that will result in pavements bereft of human activity and enjoyment, facades crudely and hideously adapted, and the public realm strewn with wheelie bins and refuse sacks ravaged and burst by foxes and feral cats.”  

As street scenes go, it’s no Renoir, is it.  

Even the National Trust got involved. Months before the changes came into place, the heritage organisation warned of long-term damage to the economy, communities and the built environment, and called for the government to scrap the most noxious parts of the plan.  

On the other side of the fence stand not only the landlords, but potential financial backers for the new development of old premises. They see the abandoned buildings as “a huge opportunity for investors to transform ailing properties into liveable spaces”.  

This has led to a situation where most local councils have lost control over the future of their own town centres, with the power being handed to developers and landlords. At the moment, only areas of huge significance like Bath can invoke Article 4 to protect their streets. Sadly, this will lead to the extinction of vitally important local flavours provided by regional communities of shopkeepers, restaurateurs and other businesses.  

And, as the saying goes, all for a cheap buck. Who wants to go window shopping only to be confronted by closed curtains, or even worse, someone in their undies scoffing Turkey Twizzlers (they’re back!) where the counter of pasties should be.  

If controls are needed, it’s right there.  

It’s important, though, to not lose sight of what else is going on. The outlook for conscientious building professionals is extremely exciting. There are now development opportunities to transform brownfield sites into something special, and inspired groups of architects like Snug are already deeply involved in creating tomorrow’s A-lister dwellings from yesterday’s down-and-outs.   

So, although our attention and demand for action should focus on the potential death of the provincial high street, the BE community is simultaneously breathing oxygen into abandoned brick skeletons. A solution can be created, but it means we must get noisy.  

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