Written evidence submitted by the Association of Convenience Stores [PDR 083]
- ACS (the Association of Convenience Stores) welcomes the opportunity to respond to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Select Committee inquiry into permitted development rights (PDRs). ACS represents 33,500 local shops and petrol forecourts including Co-op, McColls, BP and thousands of independent retailers, many of which trade under brands such as Spar, Nisa and Costcutter. Further information about ACS is available at Annex A.
- We support flexibility in the planning system for property owners to ensure that their premises are put to effective use. National PDRs contribute towards this flexibility by allowing convenience retailers and other business property owners a more streamlined and certain route through the planning system. PDRs can play an important role in helping high streets to adapt and meet demands for commercial, office and residential property units. The prior approval process can ensure permitted development produces quality dwellings. However, PDR policies should not allow the loss of valued essential shops and local facilities.
- We are concerned about the impact of new commercial to residential PDRs due to commence on 1st August 2021. Commercial property often becomes more valuable when converted to domestic use, especially in rural and suburban locations where housing demand is greatest and 63% of convenience stores trade. These local shops provide a core grocery offer and range of essential services to local communities. The pandemic has highlighted the value of access to essentials locally, in turn promoting the ‘15-minute neighbourhoods’ concept for planning and sustainable placemaking.
- Safeguards are required to prevent commercial to residential conversions from undermining neighbourhood parades and local access to groceries and essential services. The prior approval process for these conversions should account for potential impacts on the economic health of the retail centre and provisions of essential local services. To bring forward further housing stock, the Government could consider reinstating a Flat Conversion Allowance to bring empty spaces above shops into residential use.
What role should permitted development rights (PDR) play in the planning system?
- PDRs bring efficiencies into the planning system and can allow faster conversions of inactive or underused properties into more economic uses. The full planning application process is a long-term frustration for convenience retailers developing or expanding sites, with eight-week targets for council decisions routinely missed.
- PDRs require oversight and must not undermine town centre first policy. Town centre first remains an important policy for driving investment into retail centres and must be applied thoroughly as the economic consequences of Covid-19 restrictions on high streets and vacancy rates becomes clear. Non-commercial properties in central locations should complement attractive and viable town centres.
What is the impact of PDR on the quality and quantity of new housing, including affordable and social housing?
- The prior approval process intends to ensure the quality of converted properties which have utilised PDRs and covers design and external appearance. Policies to ensure the quality of residential properties should therefore focus on an effective prior approval process rather than the existence of PDRs themselves.
Is the government’s approach to PDR consistent with its vision in the Planning White Paper?
- Yes. We support the transition from a discretionary decision-based planning system to a predominantly rules-based regime. This will produce quicker decisions and more predictable outcomes.
What is the impact of PDR on the ability of local authorities to plan development and shape their local communities?
- PDRs are used in a small proportion of planning changes. Applications for prior approvals for permitted development have not increased since 2014 but refusals have increased due to prior approval policies in the same timeframe. For the convenience sector, the main use of PDRs has been for business-to-business changes of use prior to recent use class reforms.
- PDRs can enable popular forms of development to be realised or replicated relatively quickly. This underlines the relevance of proposals for locally-developed design codes within the planning white paper. We support the development of practical resources for councils and groups developing neighbourhood plans, which will be the main vehicle for community involvement in local design codes.
What is the impact of PDR on the involvement of local communities in the planning process?
- It is the wider planning system rather than PDRs that makes local involvement difficult for convenience retailers. Specifically, poor and varied notification processes from local planning authorities and the time commitments required to interpret complicated policy documents are barriers to engagement. It should be far easier for retailers to engage with local planning - nobody should have to rely on planning notices attached to lamp posts, printed in newspapers, or posted in libraries.
- Making planning digital has the potential to greatly improve the accessibility of local planning and bring about earlier awareness of local proposals amongst retailers. The planning system is ripe for harnessing the benefits of digitisation, especially real time information and high-quality virtual simulation. Local planning authorities must remain required to inform retailers directly about proposals affecting their local trading area, early in the process.
Should the government reform PDR? If so, how?
- PDRs can support flexibility within the planning system, supporting the post-pandemic recovery as many businesses fundamentally evaluate their offers and trading locations. We support a positive approach to PDRs but additional checks are required for commercial to residential conversions.
Commercial to Residential Safeguards
- These changes of use should only be approved following proper consideration of: the potential impact on the economic health of the retail centre, the need to maintain an adequate provision of essential local services, and the potential impact on the local character of the area. These three safeguards within the prior approval process would ensure conversions support effective retail provisions, especially in areas where property is generally worth more for residential than non-domestic uses.
Protecting Local Parades
- We are concerned that PDR reforms scheduled for 1st August will particularly undermine the viability of neighbourhood shopping parades. These parades host everyday services and infrastructure, which are integral to the idea of fifteen-minute neighbourhoods and have especially demonstrated their value throughout the pandemic. The safeguards outlined above would prevent these PDRs from significantly reducing the range of services available to local people and reducing footfall for remaining businesses. Reducing this critical mass of local facilities and forcing people to travel elsewhere for their day-to-day needs would undermine the Government’s ambitions for sustainable and walkable communities.
Maximising Space Above Shops
- Commercial to residential conversions are more appropriate as part of town centre development strategies and spaces above shops. Converting empty space above shops to residential uses can benefit both planning authorities and retailers, by adding new housing stock and driving footfall and improving security for retailers. A poll of 1,210 independent retailers suggests that of those owning space above their shop, most (74%) convenience retailers either live in or rent out the space, 13% use it for business purposes, 7% rent it out for commercial use and 6% have a vacant space.
- A renewed Flat Conversion Allowance would reduce the substantial capital expenditure required to make these spaces suitable for letting, adding more residential uses in central locations. The Flat Conversion Allowance provided 100% capital allowances for the conversion of empty spaces above commercial premises to residential use. Reinstating the Allowance would reduce the substantial capital expenditure required to make spaces suitable for letting, for example to comply with domestic minimum energy efficiency standards. This would add more residential uses into centres without threatening the viability of local services.
 ACS Local Shop Report 2020
 ACS Voice of Local Shops Survey: August 2018