As we've transitioned into the ‘new normal’ that was so widely discussed during the height of the pandemic, there is one significant change in how our working lives now operate and one unfortunate constant: our ability to blend part-home and part-office working has grown, and the health of many of our town and city centres has continued to decline. This passle is the second of a five-part series considering proposed changes to permitted development rights in Scotland, as well as to the Use Classes Order, to support the future of our town and city centres.
Revitalising Town Centres
The complex challenges that our town and city centres face are not new; however, they have been exacerbated by the effects of Covid-19. As Government mandates required us to stay and work at home, a lack of commuting, reduced footfall and a subsequent decline in trade have had a devastating impact on businesses, particularly those located on the traditional high street. With one in six retail units across the country currently estimated to be vacant by the Scottish Retail Consortium, revitalising our town and city centres, unsurprisingly, remains a key priority for the Scottish Government.
It’s too early to understand what the long-term impacts of the pandemic will be, but in the shorter term, it’s clear that the hybrid working model is here to stay. As such, the Scottish Government anticipate that as we shift to more flexible and agile working patterns, there will be an increase in demand for decentralised and smaller-scale workspaces.
As part of the ongoing review of permitted development rights, the Scottish Government are considering the introduction of a permitted development right (‘PDR’) that would allow for the change of use of premises to Class 4 (Business).
The proposed PDR would apply to the change of use of premises in Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3 use, without the need to apply for planning permission. The Scottish Government envisage that providing greater flexibility for the change of use of existing buildings to offices will support the creation of smaller-scale workspaces. It is proposed that the PDR will only apply to units that are 300 sqm or less, meaning that planning permission would still be required to change the use of premises in excess of 300 sqm to a Class 4 use.
The Scottish Government consider that the provision of decentralised and smaller-scale workspaces has the potential to bring additional uses into our town and city centres, which will encourage the reuse of vacant retail units and aid in revitalising town centres.
The increase in remote working has already led to a number of prominent office occupiers re-evaluating their space requirements to take on smaller and significantly higher quality premises. Through the proposed PDR, the provision of smaller scale workspaces may enable an increased number of existing businesses to downsize and retain a town or city centre presence whilst creating or gaining access to affordable spaces in town and city centres that can nurture local enterprise, entrepreneurship and innovation.
The Scottish Government recognise that if enacted, the PDR could have an unintended negative impact on existing office locations and on the creation of strong evening and weekend economies in town and city centres.
Nevertheless, as our town and city centres continue to change, it is essential that life is injected back into them. Although we would stress that the proposed PDR is by no means a substitute for widespread and strategic town centre regeneration and revitalisation, in principle, the PDR could give landlords greater flexibility to better respond to market interest for sites and could assist in ensuring that vacant units are reoccupied with viable uses. The enhanced ability for individuals to work more locally also links with the principle of creating 20-minute neighbourhoods across Scotland. If we are able to choose, at times, to work in closer proximity to our homes, the reduced commute could have an economic benefit for the individual that may be able to be reinvested back into the town centre, as well as an environmental benefit for the wider area.
The Scottish Government are accepting comments on the proposed PDR for changes of use to Class 4 (Business) until 3 August 2022. If you are interested in finding out more, or if you would like to understand better how the proposed PDR may relate to your commercial property interests, please get in touch with any member of the Montagu Evans Planning team and/or visit our dedicated town centres sector page here.