Written evidence submitted by Norwich BID / VisitNorwich [PDR 036]


Norwich is a culturally vibrant city with a strong, independent character, a rich history and a forward-thinking mentality. Norwich’s 2040 City Vision outlines out how the challenges facing the City will be addressed over the coming years. The ability to curate and shape the redevelopment and growth of the city has been key for the city centre over the last 1000 years and remains as vital to our continued prosperity today.


Norwich is not against the need for redevelopment or residential property within the city centre but wants there to be some accountability to the local authority and community.

Redevelopment and the provision of good quality residential property are important needs in Norwich. Both need the involvement of the local authority and community to ensure they contribute to the vitality of the city. Norwich is a city where culture and creativity are a fundamental part of its identity. Our ability to oversee the development and growth of a commercially focused city centre is essential to achieve our goal of becoming a world-leading business centre in innovation, culture, education, and invention.


PDR will weaken the city’s strengths to encourage investment and business growth for two key reasons.


1.      What role should permitted development rights (PDR) play in the planning system?


Norwich BID welcomed the previous reform of PDR in September 2020 which created the use class E. This allowed financial and professional services, restaurants and cafes, shops, and businesses to change use without planning permission. The increased flexibility for businesses to change use during the last year provided opportunities for adaptation during a turbulent period for our high streets and city centre.


Norwich city centre within its core has an estimated 75% of its commercial property as class E. Therefore, the risk for the city centre is that we could see 75% conversion to residential without any scope for challenge or planning oversight.


Extending PDR in Norwich to include conversions from the new class E commercial properties to residential will permanently alter our business spaces, simultaneously diluting the remaining bricks and mortar businesses in the retail centre while impacting the value of both surrounding commercial and domestic properties. Even after considering the additions to the prior approval list in the most recent iteration of the legislation, including the protection for health services and ground floor frontages in conservation areas, we believe that PDR is not the correct mechanism to encourage residential use in Norwich. We support a mixed-use approach to Norwich and encouraging more residential uses, but PDR is a blunt instrument. It is likely to result in the wrong housing in the wrong areas of Norwich and to undermine the city’s viability just as we start to recover from Covid restrictions. Norwich needs to be supported through careful planning during this recovery.


Norwich has a small walkable commercial centre with diverse buildings, medieval architecture nestles alongside modern developments, creating a rich city centre that has been curated over the past 100’s of years. Untempered conversion of these buildings could create a lasting legacy of damage; what works in a large-scale metropolitan city with sprawling structures will be very different in look and feel to the scale of Norwich.


The implications of Class E to residential conversions are so significant for Norwich that it is not appropriate for this to be implemented under secondary legislation. An impact of this scale should be subject to scrutiny by Parliament and debated thoroughly through primary legislation.


Norwich may consider that if there is a place for class E to residential conversions it is in locations outside our city centre. Commercial uses in these areas exist independent of other businesses and are not reliant on co-location to thrive.

2.      What is the impact of PDR on the quality and quantity of new housing, including affordable and social housing?

Norwich BID acknowledges the challenge and need for more housing while we have consistently championed the move towards mixed-use development; Norwich has supported housing in our city centres as it is vital for place evolution, but only if it is executed correctly.


In Norwich between March 2014 and October 2019 40 prior approval applications were approved for change of use from office to residential which if all built out, will provide 980 new residential units whilst resulting in the loss of 67,438 sqm of office space. PDR has significantly harmed the Norwich office economy. PDR has also resulted in the loss of affordable housing opportunities for Norwich as residential permitted under prior approval does not trigger affordable housing or other section 106 planning gain payments.


The Norwich experience of permitting offices to convert to residential demonstrated that, far from being a quick win, poor quality housing with inadequate infrastructure have been created. https://www.eveningnews24.co.uk/news/norwich-st-faith-s-lane-flats-nick-sutton-landlord-penalty-1768300. Norwich is concerned that this PDR deregulation will lead to further low quality residential as property owners seek a quick financial return on sites that have lost revenue in the pandemic.


There was a clear financial incentive to convert offices in Norwich because house prices were higher although office vacancies were lower. Economic activity was lost as a result. We fear that this recent change to PDR does not consider the new economic reality of the pandemic. It fails to acknowledge the potential for excessive and detrimental conversions by PDR and its impacts.


Norwich has lost an estimated 30%+ of office space in the city centre to residential development in the last 10 years. If the same level of development were undertaken in all class E, this would have a devastating impact on the economy, not considering the long-term trends and the city’s ability to bounce back.


Norwich considers the current prior approval list as not comprehensive enough to prevent poor quality housing. New additions to the list, like the consideration of noise impacts from existing commercial premises are positive but there needs to be further clarification. Norwich has long-established evening and night-time economy (ENTE) venues that have previously closed due to new residential developments and noise complaints. A measure, similar to the 'agent of change principle', should be included to protect existing ENTE businesses. This could create open discussion between landlords and local authorities about how new homes might be modified to ensure noise from the ENTE is not a problem for the new residents. Reducing conflict between residents and businesses while solidifying what protection they have is vital, especially considering the struggles many ENTE venues endured during the COVID-19 pandemic.

3.      What is the impact of PDR on local planning authorities, developer contributions and the provision of infrastructure and services?

Norwich BID has significant concerns about the impact on those users who rely on local services such as healthcare, postal services and food provision, who will be negatively affected by the PDR change.

Within the prior approval list, mitigating the loss of health centres and registered children’s nurseries is helpful. But the potential impact of residential development on local service provision is more far reaching, one scenario which we can point towards is the necessity of specific health and medical services during the pandemic. Services like pharmacies, are part of the vaccination roll out and will remain critical to the nation’s health in years to come if vaccination is required repeatedly in future years. Losing pharmacies to residential conversions would be highly detrimental and would create unnecessary obstacles to accessing health services for the local community.


PDR reduces income for local planning authorities and is free from affordable housing and other social infrastructure contributions.


Norwich would want the opportunity to consider developments and allow constructive input from the local planning authorities and stakeholders to ensure it is in keeping with the Norwich 2040 Vision and to maintain Norwich as the cultural, retail and economic hub for the whole county of Norfolk.

4.      Is the government’s approach to PDR consistent with its vision in the Planning White Paper?

Norwich BID considers there are inconsistencies between the vision of the Planning White Paper and the PDR legislation. The Government’s suggested changes for the Planning White Paper means:

     Consultation with local communities from the very beginning of the planning process. By harnessing the latest technology through online maps and data, the whole system would be made more accessible.


PDR allows no consultation with local communities and will inevitably undermine our Norwich 2040 vision that was developed in consultation with local communities.


     Protection of valued green spaces for future generations by allowing for more building on brownfield land and all new streets to be tree lined.


PDR reuses existing buildings, but people equally value Norwich city centre as a thriving place that will be undermined by this change. 


     Much-needed homes being built quicker by ensuring local housing plans are developed and agreed in 30 months – down from the current 7 years.


PDR allows homes to be built more quickly but at what cost to the vitality and viability of Norwich, and we believe the risk being substandard homes or mostly flats that people won’t want to live in without the services they require.


     Every area to have a local plan in place


A local plan will only be able to set out where development can take place. PDR allows unplanned residential conversion will risk reducing footfall and disrupting activity levels and the critical mass that makes Norwich centre work.


     An overhaul of the planning process being replaced with a clearer, rules based system.


PDR is rules-based, but the benefits are unclear


     All new homes to be ‘zero carbon ready’, with no new homes delivered under the new system needing to be retrofitted in trying to achieve the commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.


No mention of net zero in PD.


     A new simpler national levy to replace the current system of developer contributions which often causes delay.


Although not exempt from CIL, PDR is free from affordable housing and other social infrastructure contributions although they could be included in the replacement levy.


     The creation of a fast-track system for beautiful buildings and establishing local design guidance for developers to build and preserve beautiful communities.



5.      What is the impact of PDR on the ability of local authorities to plan development and shape their local communities?


PDR severely limits the capability of long-term planning by local authorities for Norwich, undermining our city centre renewal. Permitting uncontrolled conversions from commercial to residential would remove one of the few tools available, hindering the delivery of Norwich 2040 vision and regeneration. Norwich is in a state of flux where opportunities to enable change based on the positive evolution of a place are possible. Norwich has exciting new leisure concepts being developed and experiential innovations, but they need commercial space to occupy.


Norwich needs a level of control in place as the recent extension to PDR creates too many opportunities for conversions (as set out above), the effect of which will be hard to rectify. Buildings converted to residential use will be in multiple ownership and never return to commercial use.


The restriction of Article 4 Directions within PDR hinders Norwich local planner’s potential to prevent PDR across a defined area. Although current Article 4 Directions are being carried forward until July 31st, 2021, the blockage of new directions is of concern. It will undermine local planning authorities’ future ability to tailor national legislation to respond to local circumstances where the need for control has already been demonstrated and approved by the Secretary of State.


Norwich has concerns over the financial impact on local governments in general. The businesses that can disappear are the exact ones that fund local government services through business rates. Exacerbating the financial position Norwich / Norfolk LA’s already find themselves in following funding reductions and the growth in need during the pandemic. Norwich supports a radical rethink of business taxation, moving away from outdated and unfair business rates. However, the impact of losing business rates income in the short term needs careful consideration to prevent unintentionally making local government financially unviable.



6.      Is the government right to argue that PDR supports business and economic growth?


Norwich does not believe that the additions to PDR will support the economic growth of businesses.


Firstly, we are concerned about the impact this has on business confidence when it is already too low. Norwich has suffered as a service economy in the pandemic and understandably those businesses have been hit hard by restrictions. The extension of PDR could undermine these services by further disrupting the workspaces they are reliant on. Serious implications for the future of our economic output could happen if not carefully moderated.


One of the biggest impacts on Norwich businesses will be the loss of commercial spaces, harming many bricks and mortar enterprises in our city centre. The combination of high residential values, long-standing rental arrears triggered by the pandemic and the extension of PDR will likely lead to business evictions making way for homes. Even with the requirement for a property to be vacant for three vacant months before a conversion can take place this is a very short time and we do not believe that this will prevent the eviction of businesses.  Even with heads of terms agreed between parties the process for retail lease takes a minimum 6-12 months, so this vacancy figure is far too low to reflect the true commercial process. For businesses, this extension of PDR is a further threat that will undermine the certainty they need in this challenging period, potentially exacerbating business loss and shrinking our economy.


From this extension to PDR, Norwich is likely to see the loss of retail in the city centre when the future need and retail requirements are still unknown. This knee jerk response to the increase in vacant property risks resulting in a ‘doughnut’ city where high-value central properties that should be their vibrant core are hollowed out with residential conversions. The shift from non-domestic to domestic is challenging to reverse, it is a permanent solution to a temporary (but acute) problem.


In Norwich it is not just retail that we are concerned about. Restaurants, cafes and offices have all been badly hit by the pandemic and need time to recover. This deregulation of planning could mean Norwich sees a reduction in these uses unnecessarily as well.


In Norwich evictions would be highly damaging for the private sector, but it is not the only problem. The remaining businesses, who are subject to the unplanned break up of footfall generating activities in a commercial destination where PDR is used excessively, or in the wrong locations (similar to the changes in 2013) will have concerns about the impact on spend. This impact would extend to landlords who could see the value of their assets fall, due to the decline in services those residential or commercial units have access to, drastically damaging all property prices in Norwich.


Norwich businesses have questioned how the removal of class E sites in the city centre would create more wealth, it may in the short term for landlords, but it will impact severely on the surrounding businesses. Innovation is led by opportunity with the availability of space and time key to develop and prove concepts, not a knee jerk reaction stifling its re-use.


Finally, the reduced availability of commercial properties will increase rents for the surviving businesses, based on supply and demand, at a time when they need more sustainable costs and risks setting back recovery.



7.      What is the impact of PDR on the involvement of local communities in the planning process?


In the ‘Planning for the Future’ White Paper, MHCLG presented interesting ideas around modernising and visualising the planning consultation process to build community participation. Norwich businesses felt that was a step in the right direction, but it will be undermined by extending PDR. The communities in Norwich will find it much harder to have any say in how existing commercial property fulfils their needs.


The implemented changes will throw into doubt the future of community participation in shaping Norwich city centre and advances in participatory placemaking brought forward by MHCLG, such as Neighbourhood Planning.


8.      Should the government reform PDR? If so, how?

Norwich BID believes that the Government should reform PDR by removing residential to commercial conversions in our city centre. We agree that there is a place in town centres for residential properties, supporting a mixed-use urban space with retail, hospitality and supporting infrastructure. This variety is what makes places unique and attractive, but the balance is delicate. Without planning controls, Norwich would see the over-saturation of residential uses replacing previous independent and chain businesses and crucial community services, hollowing out our centre.

If the Government remains set on extending PDR for residential conversions in Norwich, extending prior approval requirements is needed. The prior approval list should include considerations like the agent of change principle that would ensure Norwich can retain a thriving ENTE. An extension of prior approval should also consider provision of services, good quality affordable housing, transport, and waste management in Norwich.

Designated provision should be exempt from ground floor conversions in city centres, not just conservation areas. Landlords could then still make use of PDR to convert the upper floors of properties to deliver housing, while the retaining active ground floor frontage in Norwich protecting our services-based economy.

Finally, we must consider alternatives to PDR and new possibilities of mixed-use curated sustainable communities. Norwich BID would consider presumed consent with the opportunity provided for planning to stop and challenge where needed. This would provide the flexibility for new permitted development to housing but would allow the local authority to request a full planning application. However, at present we could not support allowing all permitted development rights to change to residential and ask for these to be repealed.   


April 2021