National Organisation of Residents Associations


NORA Response to Relaxing the Planning Rules for
the Change of Use from Commercial to Residential




It has been NORA’s understanding that the planning regime is designed to facilitate development but to ensure that it is appropriate for the environment in which it is situated. That government policy on the planning regime is intended to emphasise the facility is well-understood and supported, but NORA considers it is essential to keep in place the regime that ensures any development is compatible with its surroundings.

NORA’s members regard the current planning regime as a tripartite system. The applicant, the local planning authority guided by local and central government planning policies and the community comprise the three elements. The aim is for all three parties to work together to facilitate development and to reach agreement on the proposals.

In recent years planning policies have emphasised the need and value of encouraging development on brown-field sites rather than on open space and green fields. At one time this was not always an economic proposition for developers, but, as land prices have risen, changing empty buildings, whether residential or commercial, to modern residential use has become economic.

As a consequence in so many of our cities, towns and villages developers have been converting abandoned dwellings, upper floors over commercial property, warehouses, cinemas, churches, factories, etc. into residential dwellings. The involvement of planning departments and building regulation departments has been crucial in ensuring that the right properties are converted into acceptable residential accommodation. The community has always been involved and supportive except where such development is likely to have a damaging effect on their environment. It should be recognised, however, that urban areas, particularly town centres, may not be able to continue to absorb development in the way that they have in the past and still ensure protection and enhancement of the environment.

The major problem encountered by developers is not the planning process and the need for planning consent for a change of use, but the need to design and build economic dwellings from suitable abandoned properties. Building regulations, the need for access to transport and off-street parking, water and sewage facilities, infrastructure, retail outlets, medical and educational services all require assessment in order that the dwellings are sustainable and an asset to the community.

Accordingly to remove planning controls affecting change of use, as described in this consultation paper, appears to give to developers a freedom that is out of proportion to the need. To leave this assessment entirely in the hands of developers, whose prime concern is to make a profit, could create conflict with planning policies, local plans and in the near future neighbourhood plans and opposition from the community, and could also result in serious damage to our environment. The complaints of developers, that appear to have prompted this consultation paper, are unproven and unclear. We do not have the confidence that a voluntary code of conduct would be workable.

The proposal would also appear to be in conflict with the key principle behind the Localism Bill, which is understood to delegate local decisions to the local government and the community. This proposal comes from central government, and appears to take the power of decision away from local government and deprive the community of involvement. This is surely inconsistent with the government’s policy on the Big Society.

Response to questions

Question A

Do you support the principle of the Government’s proposal to grant permitted development rights to change use from B1 (business) to C3 (dwelling houses) subject to effective measures being put in place to mitigate the risk of homes being built in unsuitable locations? Please give your reasons.


To grant that this change of use is permitted development has the simple effect of removing the decision on the change of use from the local planning authority to the developer. It is difficult to accept that the reason for this is to save the time it takes for the local planning authority to makes the decision, which ought to be a matter of less than six weeks. This delay is surely insignificant in terms of the time that actual development takes.

Local planning authorities and communities are usually supportive of changes of unoccupied commercial buildings to residential use when it is appropriate and compatible with local planning policies. NORA suspects that an important reason for developers seeking this exemption from the need for planning consent for a change of use is primarily to over-ride the concerns of local planning authorities and communities, where such changes of use would be undesirable, inappropriate or conflict with local planning policies.

The mitigation measures comprising using Article 4 Directions are unnecessarily complex, would impose extra cost on local authorities and deprive planning authorities of any fees for subsequent planning applications. Introducing further planning policies to control the permitted use would also impose extra cost on authorities and add complexities. To rely on a voluntary code of conduct would be ineffective since developers prime interest is to make a profit, and this might over-rule any concern to meet environmental and even safety issues.

Question B

Do you support the principle of granting permitted development rights to change use from B2 (general industrial) and B8 (storage and distribution) to C3 (dwelling houses) subject to effective measures being put in place to mitigate the risk of homes being built in unsuitable locations? Please give your reasons.


The answer to this question is the same as the answer to question A.

Question C

Do you agree that these proposals should also include a provision which allows land to revert to its previous use within five years of a change?

This question does not exist, since the key proposal comprises an unregistered change of use, so a reversal would only be needed if the development has been completed. This should properly require planning consent.

Question D

Do you think it would be appropriate to extend the current permitted development rights outlined here to allow for more than one flat? If so should there be an upper limit?


This suggestion presumes that property above retail premises is also in Class A and not Class B. In many shopping streets in the UK, local authorities have promoted a ‘Living above the Shops’ policy, which encourages developers to convert upper floors into as many flats as they consider practical. Because the regulations governing floor space in residential dwellings - Parker-Morris standards - were abolished in the 1980s, planning authorities have little control over the number and size of flats above retail premises. The present planning regime does allow matters such as storage, off-street parking, access, waste disposal, etc. to be managed by the local planning authority in the interests of amenity. Leaving these matters entirely in the hands of developers concerned to make a profit would risk considerable damage to the environment and, in some instances even create safety risks.

Question E

Do you agree that we have identified the full range of possible issues which might emerge as a result of these proposals? Are you aware of any further impacts that may need to be taken into account? Please give details.


One key foreseen and presumably unintended consequence of granting permitted development rights to change large abandoned buildings into dwellings would be the possibility of using further permitted development rights to change such dwellings into Houses of Multiple Occupancy, which could place an impossible burden on neighbouring residents, the local infrastructure and local amenities. It is essential that both planning authorities and the community should empower to consider this possibility in determining whether or not the change of use to residential is appropriate.

Question F

Do you think that there is a requirement for mitigation of potential adverse impacts arising from these proposals and for which potential mitigations do you think the potential benefits are likely to exceed the potential costs?

The whole exercise would appear to be unnecessary and put an extra burden on local planning authorities by expecting them to introduce Article 4 Directions and extra planning policies to manage the permitted development rights. They would also lose any income from planning fees.

Question G

Can you identify any further mitigation options that could be used?

The only sensible way to encourage the change of use of abandoned or unused commercial property is to encourage developers to consider such development. A campaign of persuasion is the way forward, and this has proved effective in so many town and city centres where such properties exist.

Question H

How, if at all, do you think any of the mitigation options could best be deployed?

NORA’s answer is that the proposal is unmerited, undesirable and unlikely to make any difference to developers’ endeavours.

Question I

What is your view on whether the reduced compensation provisions associated with the use of article 4 directions contained within section 189 of the Planning Act 2008 should or should not be applied? Please give your reasons.

The pressure to use Article 4 Directions on matters of change of use has only recently arisen because of the introduction of permitted development rights for the change of use from a dwelling to a House of Multiple Occupancy. This is such a complex process taking hours of work and weeks of consultation together with risks of compensation awards that local authorities have only considered using them when the failure to use them is likely to cause disastrous changes to the environment of large areas of their districts. The 12 month delay on top of the months it takes to register an Article 4 Direction and the fact that subsequent planning applications are free are strong deterrents.

Question J

Do you consider there is any justification for considering a national policy to allow change of use from C to certain B use classes? Please give your reasons.


The last change the community will want is to see their neighbouring dwellings converted to commercial or industrial use without the developers needing planning consent.

Question K

Are there any further comments or suggestions you wish to make?

This exercise would, in our opinion, be detrimental to the management of our environment by planning authorities. It would deprive the community of having a say in any changes to their neighbourhood, and would constitute a breach of their Human Rights in respect to their right to a protection of their own property (Article 8).

Accordingly we support Option One.

Questions about the Impact Assessment

Question 1

Do you think that the impact assessment broadly captures the types and levels of costs and benefits associated with the policy options? If not, why?


That Options 2 & 3 would save developers the cost of planning applications for changes of use is not denied, but to claim that the gain in value for the change to housing would be the parallel benefit is to ignore that the benefit would occur whether or not such planning applications were needed. The whole exercise depends on the willingness of developers to engage in changing the use of commercial buildings to residential dwellings in the expectation of making a profit. The cost of applying for change of use and the delay in the planning decision are trivial matters in relation to the cost of any of the projects and the length of time they take to implement.

The dangers of the exemption from needing planning consent for such changes in use are numerous. The need for planning consent avoids the major problem of having new dwellings in the wrong place and possibly with no on-street or off-street parking capacity, where there is either inadequate or no infrastructure, retail outlets, supporting services such as public transport, adequate space for parking, schools, medical centres and with the added burden on local authorities to provide household waste collection.

The other key problem is the density and quality of dwellings that follow any change of use. Planning authorities can advise developers on the most appropriate number and size of dwellings and off-street parking provision appropriate to the area. This is a vital consideration when the successful sale or letting of dwellings will determine the viability of any change of use. Too often even with advice the wrong types of dwellings are created - too small, no storage, no sound-proofing - and they only attract the indigent and students, so that in use the general state of the property declines and the development is not sustainable.

Question 2

Are there any significant costs and benefits that we've omitted? If so, please describe including the groups in society affected and your view on the extent of the impact.


The costs of damage to the environment as a result of inappropriate changes of use are not considered. NORA considers it unwise to rely on developers, whose prime concern is to make a profit, on assessing whether or not their proposals would seriously damage the environment at the expense of both the community and the local authority.

Question 3

Are the key assumptions used in the analysis in the impact assessment realistic? If not, what do you think would be more appropriate and do you have any evidence to support your view?

No comment.

Question 4

Are there any significant risks or unintended consequences we have not identified? If so please describe.

There is the risk of inappropriate development as mentioned in the answer to Question 2, and there is the risk of sequential development of Houses of Multiple Occupancy where the environment cannot sustain the associated increase in population and all the consequences of pressure on services, hours of activity and problems with transport especially the parking of cars. This proposal would also open the door to the farming community to convert all their redundant buildings into residential accommodation. Those planning authorities with a rural interest will have specific planning policies protecting the countryside, especially if they have Areas of Natural Beauty, but they will also have concerns about access, traffic and the extra burden that would fall on services provided by local authorities.To give free rein to the farming community to change the countryside dramatically would not be in the interest of the environment.

Question 5

Do you agree that the impact assessment reflects the main impacts that particular sectors and groups are likely to experience as a result of the policy options? If not, why not?


See answers to Questions 1, 2 and 4.

Question 6

Do you think there are any groups disproportionately affected? If so please give details.

Many of the changes of use from commercial to residential development have resulted in the development of large numbers of one or two bedroom flat and studio apartments in excess of any likely demand. This style of development is entirely due to the assessment by developers that small units are likely to be easier to sell and are more profitable. Where such an excess has developed many apartments remain unsold or are bought as investment so that they remain empty. Even where they are occupied, they only cater for residents without children, so that the community structure is skewed with an absence of families with children. Few developers appear concerned to provide apartments in converted commercial premises that would accommodate families with children.

Developers usually design apartments with as small a floor space as is physically possible. Such apartments are less expensive and inevitably attract those less well-off, which can mean that families, who may occupy them, live in seriously over-crowded onditions. Inevitably such properties deteriorate more quickly with a decline in the environment to the detriment of all.

Question 7

Do you think these proposals will have any impacts, either positive or negative, in relation to any of the following protected characteristics - Disability, Gender Reassignment, Pregnancy and Maternity, Race, Religion or belief, Sex, Sexual Orientation or Age? Please explain what the impact is and provide details of any evidence of the impact.

The failure to provide accommodation suitable for families with children and the emphasis on creating dwellings of limited floor space have negative impacts on families with children and those obliged to accept the cramped and restricted nature of most dwellings created in unused commercial and industrial property. This can be seen in many major cities such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle-upon-Tyne as well as market towns scattered around the country.

Question 8

Do you have any information on the current level of planning applications for change of use from B to C3 in your local authority area which might be helpful in establishing a baseline against which to measure the impact of this policy?

Many NORA members have experience of the change of use from unused commercial and other properties to residential dwellings in their local authority area, but they only have anecdotal evidence. No doubt local planning authorities should be able to provide accurate data on this subject.

The NORA response clearly supports Option 1 and strongly rejects Options 2 and 3.

May 2011                                    Alan B Shrank - NORA chairman