With the Government’s re-jigging of the Use Classes Order (“UCO”) in September 2020, the next task was to untangle the relevant parts of the General Permitted Development Order (“GPDO”). These controversial changes to the permitted development regime have now been published, and introduces a new PD right to convert from Class E use to residential from 1 August 2021.

As a reminder, amongst those changes to the UCO was the creation of a new Use Class E which includes a number of uses that previously fell under Class A1, Class A2, Class A3, Class B1 and parts of Class D1 and Class D2 (see my colleague, Craig Blatchford’s, post on the UCO changes, with Town Legal, 29 July 2020). 

The latest amendments to the GPDO sees the phasing out of the current office to residential prior approval (“Class O”) and retail to residential (“Class M”) with the introduction of the new Class E to C3 prior approval route (“Class MA”).

Other amendments to permitted development relating to ports and public infrastructure are also introduced under this amendment, but we focus here on the Class MA changes.

The permitted development right that enabled the conversion of offices to residential (Class O) has been well utilised by developers across England since 2013 with over 13,000 prior approval applications approved in that time with the various PD routes resulting in the delivery of over 72,000 new homes between 2015 and 2020. 

The Class O right has been amended numerous times over the years with the aim of addressing concerns arising from office conversions such as the enormous variation in residential quality.  The requirement for new dwellings to have access to “adequate natural light in habitable rooms” was introduced in 2020 and adhering to the minimum space standards is a requirement (via a separate amendment to the GPDO) from April 2021 onwards.

The key takeaways from the 2021 amendments include:

  • The current Class B1 to C3 prior approval (“Class O”) to be phased out with applications required on or before 31 July 2021;
  • Class E to C3 prior approval (“Class MA”) available from 1 August 2021;
  • The change applies to buildings with a cumulative floorspace of less than 1,500 sq m and requires the building to have been vacant for three months prior to submission of a prior approval application;
  • Applies to all Class E uses including retail, restaurants, offices, light industrial, medical/health, crèche/nursery, indoor sports (other than a swimming pool) etc;
  • Reintroduces permitted development rights for the conversion of light industrial premises (previously Class PA which expired on 1 October 2020);
  • Local authorities’ existing Article 4 Directions (which withdraw specific PD rights) are transferred over until August 2022;
  • The considerations of a prior approval application include impacts on transport, contamination, flooding, noise, natural light and other case-by-case matters depending on the existing use or location of development.
  • Planning permission is still required for physical alterations or development works associated with conversion of the building.

The new Class MA rights are, in some respects, slightly more onerous for office buildings, with a move away from an unlimited floorspace capable of conversion (to an upper cap of 1,500 sq m) and the requirement for buildings to have been vacant for at least three months prior to an application.

Owners with office buildings that may not meet the new requirements of Class MA should consider pursuing an application before the Class O PD rights fall away, with the final date for the submission of such application being 31 July 2021.

We also note that Class O conversions are subject to a three year time limit for completion so the next few months are also the last chance to re-apply for previously consented office to residential development, which would secure a new three year completion timescales.

Local authorities will be able to introduce Article 4 Directions which remove the Class MA rights, and the government has automatically transferred all existing Directions that currently restrict office to residential (until 1 August 2022) We can therefore expect local authorities to consider other A4Ds in the coming months to prevent the conversion of certain uses to residential, in specific locations.

In some cases, a site’s planning history may specifically prevent the use of permitted development rights via a planning condition on a previous consent. Care should therefore be taken to review any planning restrictions on an existing building.

Class MA does introduce (and reintroduce) permitted development rights for the conversion of other commercial, business and service uses to residential, including from light industrial uses. This is now applicable to larger buildings than was previously allowed. Larger retail uses are also capable of conversion to residential and there is now an opportunity to find a new home in your old nursery, medical centre or leisure centre! 

And watch this space, because there are numerous other permitted development rights for various existing and proposed uses that will require updating before the transitional provisions of the UCO come to an end in August 2021.