New Jenrick rules will strip character from our Town centres 

With the amorphous character of housing development sprawling around our towns and villages, it is only their centres that retain any character. But this character can now be changed “overnight” by new permitted development rights introduced by Robert Jenrick and described as a “complete gift to unscrupulous developers”.

From a Budleigh correspondent:

New rules allowing commercial premises to be converted into homes came into force on 31 March 2021 as “part of a package of measures to revitalise England’s cherished high streets and town centres”.

 “Permitted Development Rights” (PD) will be expanded which will enable developers to turn shops, pharmacies, restaurants and post offices into apartments without needing planning permission in town centres. A property will only have to be empty for 3 months before it can be converted. Until now, for example, while developers have technically had a permitted development right to turn shops and professional services premises into homes, this has only applied to properties smaller than 150sq m.

There will be no right for the local authority to object to the conversion on the basis that they want to retain commercial uses in a particular location, or in order to support the delivery of local plan policies around town centres.

The amount of activity of high streets would plummet which has to be really carefully managed and the quality of the accommodation would also plummet as has already been seen with current PD conversions.

PD conversions would bring in no section 106 money and councils would also lose business rates, while at the same time facing a potentially higher social services load as a consequence of people living in substandard accommodation.

And where would the wheelie bins go?

The “sting” is that this will also apply to Conservation Areas – albeit with an additional prior approval criterion added to consider the impact of conversion on the conservation area.  Architects, planners, conservationists and the National Trust have condemned this move.

East Devon District Council has designated 33 Conservation Areas in the district. We have many areas of special architectural or historic interest and the aim of these is to enhance or preserve the character of each area. They cover the historic town centres of all the seven major towns i.e. Exmouth , Budleigh Salterton, Sidmouth, Seaton, Honiton and Axminster, and also include our historic villages. See designation here.

However, local authorities will have the ability to apply for so-called “article 4” directions exempting specific areas from the measures, if they can mount a persuasive case as to why that is necessary. My previous experience with EDDC’s Ed Freeman and Article 4 directions is there is a reluctance to apply these powers, so not much hope here.  (A number of London boroughs, for example, managed to secure similar exemptions from the 2015 “office-to-resi” rights. And they were enthusiastically deployed by prime minister Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London to protect the capital’s commercial heartland.)

We all agree that our towns need an uplift but a free for all is not the way to go about it as our historic town centres will be extremely vulnerable to “unscrupulous developers” and “substandard homes”.

The only excemption to these rights will be in Budleigh Salterton. The town is in the East Devon AONB and the only exceptions to this policy will be in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. You may ask why Budleigh Salterton and not Sidmouth, a much older, historic town is in the East Devon AONB. Initially all towns were excluded when boundaries were set but the reasons for this exception were given in 1961 by the National Parks Commission  

(i) they believed that the quality of the coastline immediately west of Budleigh Salterton was so good that it justified the inclusion of the town itself in the AONB, and

(ii) while they agreed with the NPC view that Sidmouth should be excluded, the drawing of a precise boundary around the town should await the outcome of discussions between Sidmouth UDC and the County Council.

But has this exceptional inclusion had any effect on the town with EDDC planners? As a resident of Budleigh Salterton it has been obvious that the town’s inclusion in the East Devon AONB has always been a thorn in the flesh to EDDC planners and something very often completely forgotten or overlooked. We will see whether the blinkers continue with Permitted Development Rights.

We all know we need to upgrade our town centres but as Victoria Hills, chief executive of the Royal Town Planning Institute, said “the changes were a complete gift to unscrupulous developers”.