Our town and city centres are the hearts of our communities, offering a diverse range of workplaces, services and amenities for the people they serve. As challenging economic conditions, changes in consumer behaviours and shocks from the Covid-19 pandemic continue to test our centres, their ongoing evolution and adaptation are key priorities for the Scottish Government.

This article is the final in a series of five that have considered proposed changes to permitted development rights and the Use Classes Order in Scotland, with support for our town and city centres being a key objective. 

Reimagining town and city centre living

Reimagining town centres and city centres as places to live, as well as to work, is a potential way to aid their revitalisation. Creating 20-minute neighbourhoods in Scotland and facilitating “local living” are key themes in the Draft National Planning Framework 4. Now, the Scottish Government are inviting views as to whether a permitted development right (‘PDR’) should be introduced to support the change of use of shops, offices and other town centre uses to residential units without the need for planning permission.

In England, permitted development rights have enabled the conversion of offices to residential uses since 2013 with amended regulations and have more recently been extended to allow for transport. The Scottish Government have advised that they are “not minded to introduce a new PDR providing for the conversion of shops, offices and other town centre uses to residential units”. Instead, their preference is for development to continue to be plan-led, with proposals assessed through the planning application process.

At Montagu Evans, we would welcome the introduction of PDR to enable the conversion of commercial space to residential, provided that it encompasses criteria to ensure an appropriate residential environment can be created as a firm Montagu Evans has assisted a number of clients with the conversion of commercial buildings to residential uses through PDR in England and would suggest that the Scottish Government can learn a lot from experience south of the border.

Residential populations can undeniably help town and city centres thrive, as the associated footfall can strengthen the viability of shops, services and other facilities. In England, it’s evident that PDR has assisted in delivering much-needed housing and aided the regeneration of centres by repurposing vacant or underutilised commercial buildings.

However, as population growth ultimately puts pressure on local infrastructure, the Scottish Government must consider how such impacts can be mitigated in the absence of the ability to impose conditions or enter into legal agreements with developers. How might contributions towards affordable housing be sought, for example, or for education, transport and healthcare infrastructure?

To ensure adequate design quality and the creation of satisfactory living environments for future occupiers, we would suggest that if residential units are to be created through PDR, the Scottish Government ensure developments align with national standards for unit sizes, the provision of amenity spaces and daylight and sunlight requirements – as is the case in England.

In some of our towns and cities, there is an over-supply of commercial space, and a new permitted development right could help to bring this space back into productive use and deliver material benefits. However, a PDR for converting shops, offices and other town centre uses to residential units could, unintentionally, reduce commercial floorspace.

There is also a risk that permitted development rights could compromise wider regeneration aspirations for a town or city and could create residential developments at odds with the surrounding townscape.

To protect the vibrancy of our town and city centres and to ensure an adequate supply of commercial floorspace is retained, the Scottish Government may wish to consider limitations on the amount of floor space that can be altered within a town or city under PDR, as well as minimum timescales for how long commercial units must be vacant for before they qualify for residential conversion under PDR.

The Scottish Government are accepting comments on the proposed PDR until 3 August 2022. If you are interested in finding out more, or if you would like to understand better how the proposed permitted development relates 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.