77. High streets, sledgehammers and nuts: the folly of more PDR

Vanishing use classes

The ambitions of the Government to deliver significantly more new housing in England have consistently come up against a housing development market unable to deliver the numbers despite a surplus of permissioned land.  Part of the solution has been a sequence of liberalisations to permitted development rights (PDR) that allow the conversion of redundant retail and offices to residential without the need for planning permission.  Whilst successful at bringing forward new units – 72,687 over five years – the quality of too many has been substandard.

Undaunted, the latest proposed liberalisation – out for consultation until the end of January – is by far the most ambitious.  The proposal will give PDR rights to all properties in Class E of the Use Classes Order allowing conversion to residential use.  Class E is a new mega-class introduced only in September 2020 that contains all commercial, business and service uses, from creches, to high street shops, to offices, to financial services, to gyms, to restaurants, to retail sheds.  In other words, the majority of the city that is not already residential.  The proposed change will, in effect, lump together almost all of our urban areas into the same use class, allowing change without question from one use to another.

Is this a sensible liberation bringing long-needed flexibility to our cities or a mis-guided attempt to overcome failures in the housing market via the back door?  I fear the latter, and here’s why …

PDR, the saviour of our high streets???

The justification for the proposals provided in the consultation document is based almost entirely on the clear and present need to tackle the crisis on our high streets.  In a context where the pandemic and the move online has cut huge swathes through the retail industry, the consultation paper sensibly argues that allowing more housing in such locations will diversify uses and help to support retail through having larger populations within walking distance.  But if this is the policy objective – to revive our high streets – then deregulating almost the entire land-use change system seems a strange way to go about it.  At the very least it is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.  More worryingly, it could fatally undermine the ability of local authorities to ‘direct’ appropriate and much needed change on our high streets!

Suitable for residential?  No permission will be required!

To be clear, I am not arguing for no change or against the often desirable transition of land-uses:

  • Mix is good: A long-time shibboleth of good urbanism is mixed-use, the principle that the best places enable a mix of functions, users and activities to exist simultaneously – John Gummer in his 1997 landmark changes to the then PPG1 went so far as to identify the pursuit of mixed-use development as one of three pillars underpinning planning (the others being sustainability and design). More recently the empirical evidence has caught up with this basic assertion proving beyond doubt that mix is fundamentally good for us.
  • Flexibility is good: A long-standing shibboleth of mixed-use is flexibility, the principle that places should be able to adapt and change over time as part of the ongoing never-ending flux of cities. This applies to the buildings, streets and spaces of the city, and most particularly to the uses they contain.  Jane Jacobs, for example, talked about the need for a close-grained mingling of uses, building types and ages in order to achieve ‘exuberant diversity’.

It’s easier to undermine diversity than to build it

Given the above, on the face of it, it might seem that allowing the flexible adaptation of buildings is always a good thing, and we should simply let the market get on with delivering it.  But that fails to take into account certain realities:

  1. Contemporary market processes don’t, by themselves, deliver mixed-use as they once did. Instead, most developers specialise in single forms of development whilst many property investors will favour what is in their short-term interests.  As things stand, both tend towards housing.
  2. Real flexibility should be a two-way street, but not all uses are equally flexible. Once units and buildings have been converted to housing, particularly if in multiple ownerships, it becomes very difficult to flex them back to something else or to redevelop them.

My own research has shown that our high streets are already super-diverse places, with small scale industrial, community and office uses equalling the amount of retail within a block depth of high streets, and with residential adding further richness to the mix.  In London this rich crust of mixed-use development can stretch for many miles through the city along local high streets that together accommodate more jobs than in the Central Activities Zone.  It makes complete sense to densify and reinforce this mix with more housing, but not at the expense of the other less profitable but fundamentally desirable uses that can be found there.

The desirable (often invisible) high street mix (The Geoinformation Group, Map data @2020)

A first danger, therefore, is that, clumsily done (aka without forethought or planning), we will reduce the very diversity that the proposed policy seeks to inject.  That is because, given the choice between the uncertainties of a retail industry in crisis, an office market also in transition (as more of us inevitably work from home in the future), and the low values associated with small scale manufacturing and community functions, the logical approach for investors will be to run to residential as soon as they are able.  Housing is simply much more profitable than anything else, both now and for the foreseeable future.  The proposed new right is also one-way, everything to residential, but not back the other way (the antithesis of flexibility!).  Like the many rural villages that have been stripped of all functions apart from living, urban neighbourhoods gradually stripped of functions other than housing could all too easily become deserts rather than oases in our cities.

It’s harder to plan coherently than not to plan incoherently

It is a truth universally acknowledged that we have too much retail space; a legacy from the rapid expansion of the sector from the 1980s onwards that came to an abrupt halt in the 2010s.  Moving from a nation of shopkeepers to a nation of white van drivers is hitting us hard, a process that has moved forward five years in the last nine months care of Covid-19.  But the correct response to the holes in the retail frontage on our high streets is not to make them permanent by encouraging the conversion of retail uses to residential regardless of their location or future potential.  Instead it should be to opt for a planned shrinkage by encouraging the conversion or redevelopment of the most marginal retail locations and discouraging conversions in key continuous retail frontages.  The Use Classes Order provides a critical weapon in the arsenal to ensure that such desirable change occurs.

To stand any chance of succeeding in the future, traditional retail needs an agglomeration of allied uses and passers-by.  A cake shop on a traditional high street will rely on customers popping in on a whim as they pass by to get to the fashion retailers and the bank.  If they shut down and are replaced by residential uses, then despite the new apartments containing a fair share of cake eaters, the loss of passing trade will be unlikely to support the cake shop.  Rather than a gap-toothed look to our high streets, which will eventually lead to no teeth at all (at least no retail ones), we need to fill the gaps by concentrating uses in a coherent manner.

At the same time we need to be realistic.  It may mean abandoning some high streets altogether that have declined too far.  In such cases allowing all appropriate conversions would be the reasonable thing to do.  Elsewhere, if we wish to retain viable local high streets, we need to actively curate them through their proactive planning and management, not abandon them to market forces.  This will mean more public sector intervention rather than less.

Some once thriving high streets are beyond saving as retail venues

In my own local high street, over the last few years we have lost an HSBC bank, Debenhams, Game, Carphone Warehouse, 99p store, Peacocks, Bonmarche, Thomas Cook, and Moss Bros, along with numerous local names.  But we have gained a Vue cinema and small restaurant complex developed by the council, who have also invested in a new public realm along the length of the street.  The move cleverly anticipates and supports the turn to leisure (including leisure shopping) rather than everyday retail as the mainstay of such streets (if they can survive the current Covid lockdowns), and on the back of the confidence displayed by these public investments private investors have delivered a TK Max, Poundland, escape rooms, soft play centre, a new pub, and there is even talk of the return of a butcher to the street.

Making strategic public investments in high streets

The street has also been bolstered by the development of higher density residential at one end where retail is far more marginal, with more planned in the hinterland behind the main retail frontages.  Whilst the street still has challenges ahead – the small Marks and Spencer, Argos, and Prezzo are all vulnerable – it is proactive planning and public sector investment that has, so far, helped it to survive, not its abandonment to PDR.

Redeveloping more marginal retail as housing

High streets are the tip of the iceberg

And the sledgehammer extends well beyond high streets.  Given that Class E includes all commercial, business and service uses, the proposed changes would extend to all retail parks, business parks and light industrial units, as well as to a host of core community functions such as GP surgeries, sports, fitness and recreation uses, research facilities, nursery schools, and so on.  Whilst existing relaxations of permitted development rights have seen well publicised cases of residential developments popping up in the middle of industrial parks, this new liberalisation has the potential to put boosters on such trends, with empty (or even full) sheds offering potential ripe pickings for less scrupulous developers in search of a quick profit by converting to residential.  As we have seen with PDR thus far, there are plenty of those!

Against such threats, the consultation offers the weak protection of the ‘prior approvals’ process, designed to protect against a very short-list of ills: flooding, transport safety, contamination, noise, the provision of adequate natural light, and fire safety, but completely omitting anything to do with access to public transport, air pollution, access to facilities such as parks, shops, medical services, schools, etc. or matters relating to the design quality of the environment being created and whether it is appropriate for living, nor indeed whether the use being replaced itself had intrinsic value such as a local gym.

The folly of extending PDR

Whilst the extension of PDR has led to much needed new housing, research conducted by colleagues at UCL has shown that good planning would most likely have led to more and certainly better accommodation.  Its further extension, and on such a large scale, is folly indeed.

If the intention is to save our high streets (as suggested), then this move is a sledgehammer to crack a nut and may perversely undermine the very thing it seeks to preserve.  If the intention is to deliver more housing (as I suspect is the real agenda), then this move will certainly deliver, but quality of place and quality of life will continue to be the price we pay.  The answer to the twin dilemmas of saving our high streets and delivering more and better housing is more and better planning, not less.

What is proposed is a ‘reform’ too far and should be abandoned now.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL


January 2021