Planning for the destruction of local communities?

St Gluvias Street, Penryn by David Dixon

Changes to the planning system could allow unscrupulous developers to do  serious damage to historic town centres – have your say before it’s too late!

The government is currently consulting on several proposed changes to the planning regulations. Here in Penryn, Cornwall, these changes threaten our town centre, industrial areas and heritage.

There are three main parts to the consultation. The first is about allowing conversion of any buildings that are currently commercial, businesses or services to residential, as so-called “permitted development”. This is the bit causing the most concern, as it means developers would not have to go through the planning application process.

So what are the implications? Well, potentially there are huge, long-term negative impacts.

For starters, there’s the loss of business space in town centres. The consultation rubric states that the proposed changes aim to support the “economic future of our high streets and town centres, supporting jobs”. Instead, they look set to hasten the decline of the high street as well as other areas supporting jobs, such as industrial estates.

This would be a major risk for places such as Falmouth, where the high street shops have high waterfront real-estate value. In Penryn, Kernick Industrial Estate supports a range of businesses and uses, and affordable commercial and industrial units are in short supply. Such a loss of businesses and services risks forcing people to travel further to obtain essential goods and services, and to get to work.

In a town like Penryn, and in a rural county like Cornwall, where public transport can be expensive and infrequent, services and shops within walking distance are essential for many. We risk the permanent loss of businesses and services in our high streets and industrial estates for the short-term profit of developers.  

Then there’s the damage to our heritage. Although it seems that some buildings and areas would be excluded from these proposals, such as listed buildings and areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas would not be.

Penryn is one of Cornwall’s most ancient towns, and recently celebrated its 800th anniversary. Fortunately, it has retained much of its built heritage and has a designated conservation area. Changes to properties under these proposed extended permitted development rights could seriously impact on the character and appearance of our conservation area and should surely be subject to a proper local consultation as part of a full planning application. 

But while there would be some prior approval needed on certain specific issues, such as flooding and adequate light for inhabitants, local councils and communities would no longer have a meaningful say over such developments in their areas.

Already, some, offices have been allowed to be redeveloped as residential property as “permitted developments”. An independent, government-commissioned report investigating the quality of these conversions concluded that “permitted development conversions do seem to create worse quality residential environments than planning permission conversions in relation to a number of factors widely linked to the health, wellbeing and quality of life of future occupiers.”

The current proposals suggest that there will be no size limit on these extended permitted development rights. And the same report found that larger-scale conversions can amplify the quality issues, so future occupiers of these residences are at risk of a lower quality of life than those living in homes developed through planning application processes.

Unlike developments under the current planning system, permitted development rights granted for office-to-residential housing have not been liable for section 106 agreements, which create community obligations for the developer, and often have not contributed a community infrastructure levy –the money that developers have previously been obliged to pay to the local council, providing it with funding for infrastructure to support the new development. And it’s not clear yet whether this will be required – even though the potentially unlimited size of such schemes could greatly increase pressure on local infrastructure and leave councils facing higher costs to meet local people’s needs.

As things stand, permitted development office-to-residential conversions are not required to provide any affordable housing. A report by the Local Government Association found that permitted development rights already granted could have provided 13,500 affordable houses had they gone through the planning process. Far from helping to solve the housing crisis, these proposals have the potential to convert viable businesses and services into housing that does not meet local needs.

So why is the government proposing this? It claims these changes would benefit developers by reducing costs, thus  stimulating construction and associated jobs and helping us recover from the economic shock of the Covid-19 pandemic at the same time as meeting housing targets.

But there are so many better ways of giving local economies a boost –  ways which help us meet the challenges of the future rather than worsening those challenges. While it’s clear that the high street is changing, alternative proposals could prioritise community uses in town centres and other sustainable locations, supporting communities, jobs and the long-term prosperity of the high street.

It’s true that there’s a surplus of retail space and that using brownfield land should be encouraged, But any such conversions should be kept within the planning applications process if we want to ensure high quality homes that are fit for the future and meet local needs. The planning process is not the problem –  in fact, nine out of ten applications are approved

The Local Government Association has called for the scrapping of these permitted development rights: “To ensure a successful recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, communities need stability and certainty in planning. This can only be achieved through a locally-led, well-resourced planning system where communities have a proper say over developments in their local area.”

If you agree and would like to have your say, do please take the time to respond to the consultation. It’s called (with no apparent sense of irony)  “Supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure”, and can be found here. But you need to be quick – it closes on Thursday 28 January.

About the author: Jo Garrett has lived in Penryn for over eight years and has been a Labour Party Councillor for Penryn Town Council for the last three. Views are her own and do not represent those of the Labour Party or Penryn Town Council.