National Organisation of Residents Associations


NORA Response to Changing the Use of Empty Buildings




NORA has every confidence in Local Planning Authorities' (LPA) ability to manage the proposals for developments in their authority using the current Use Classes Order and the current planning regime. It allows appropriate pre-application discussion with developers and involvement of local councillors and representations from the community and amenity societies. Democratic government is supported by this regime.

Developers have adequate permitted development rights already enshrined in the facility to change uses within relevant Class Uses. If developers wish to change the use of empty buildings outside these permitted development rights, NORA members wish the need for planning consent to remain. LPAs and the local community can then be involved in ensuring that the proposed use is compatible with local policies and without undesirable foreseen consequences.

It is NORA's opinion that the current planning regime incurs relatively little hindrance to developers. LPAs have the skills and experience to assess the economic, social and environmental impact of developer's proposals, and, in NORA members' opinion, giving too many permitted development rights to developers may lead to developments that undermine the balance considered desirable by the community and its elected representatives. NORA members see the proposals to solve the problem of empty buildings as providing possible short-term improvement leading to long-term problems greater than those it is trying to solve.

Accordingly NORA views this Consultation Paper with serious concerns that these proposals to increase permitted development rights even though initially temporary could be detrimental to the environment. It would diminish the democratic involvement of the community in decisions which affect the local environment. Taking away the power of decision from LPAs and giving it to developers must conflict with the government policy of encouraging localism.


Question 1: Do you think there should be permitted development rights for buildings used for agricultural purposes to change use to:
- Class A1 (shops), A2 (financial and professional services), and A3 (restaurants and cafes),
- Class B1 (Business) and B8 (storage and distribution),
- Class C1 (Hotels)
- Class D2 (Assembly and Leisure)

1. There seems no particular reason to provide more permitted development rights for agricultural buildings than for urban buildings.
2. There could be argument regarding whether or not the relevant agricultural building is actually redundant.
3. To permit changes to any of the suggested classes will inevitably have consequences for adjacent villages and towns, and is bound to conflict with the stated NPPF Policy of ′town first′. If more permitted development is to be granted then it should be restricted to other relatively low impact business uses (e.g. workshops, offices, storage, food processing, cafes, leisure), which would have less impact on town centre and village retail trade, but it would be wiser to retain LPA control, because their planning concerns would be impartial.

Question 2: Should thresholds and limitations be applied to reduce the potential impact of any permitted change of use?

It remains essential for LPAs to consider whether proposed changes of use of agricultural buildings are acceptable. This includes appropriateness in a rural setting, effect on traffic, competition with adjacent enterprises especially in villages and market towns, and the extra demand on public services such as refuse collection and emergency services. LPAs are the proper authority to consider and decide these issues. NORA members are opposed to the granting of further permitted development rights for changes of use of redundant agricultural buildings.

Question 3: Are there circumstances that would justify a prior approval process to allow the local planning authority to consider potential impacts?

Pre-application discussion should be the standard approach of developers wishing to change the use of agricultural buildings. This allows the LPA to indicate its likely attitude to the proposal and provides an opportunity for appropriate advice. If there are obvious obstacles to the proposal these can be explained and possibly overcome, but prior approval is inadvisable since it would exclude the community and amenity societies from expressing its views.

Question 4: Do you agree that the size thresholds for change of use should be increased?

The process, whereby the current size threshold for the permitted changes of use within Use Class B was decided, is not clear, so doubling it may or may not be helpful. The real question is whether the demand for changes of use would increase with a greater size threshold rather than whether the change of use should be permitted development. No evidence for this has been provided.

Question 5: If so, is 470m2 the correct threshold, or should the increase in the limit be larger or more modest?

A doubling of the threshold could have a serious impact on neighbouring enterprises and on traffic, which would not be considered if it were permitted development.

Question 6: Do you think there should be permitted development rights to allow for the temporary use of buildings currently within the A, B1 and D1 and D2 use classes for a range of other specified uses for two years?

NORA strongly supports the use of empty buildings, but considers that granting permitted development rights for two years is in conflict with existing policies and is unwise. LPAs in conjunction with their local community have produced Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans are now being developed, so granting a free-for-all opportunity to change uses could conflict with Local Policies and Plans and also fly in the face of local decision making. The current planning system and planning authorities are capable of correctly balancing the economic, social and environmental merits of changes of use without causing undue burden on entrepreneurs or property owners.

Any developer considering a use of an empty building would incur considerable expense and effort in implementation. It is difficult to conceive any developer of repute investing in a venture if after two years planning consent could be refused. It may prove attractive to fly-by-night entrepreneurs, who currently use the present gaps in planning controls, but to encourage them cannot be in the long-term interests of the environment.

Use Class A

To allow changes for two years where there are many empty shops could so change the environment that after two years it would never recover.

A substantial proportion of empty shops are in shopping malls, which are currently in decline. It is difficult to envisage how granting permitted development rights for changes of use in shopping malls could benefit this element of empty shops.

Use Classes B, D1 and D2

What other changes of use from business and industrial uses could be permitted? The recent proposal to allow the change from business use to residential use has been strongly criticised, because the relevant sites lack the essential facilities essential for residential estates. The inclusion of Use Classes B, D1 and D2 in this proposal is just as likely to lead to undesirable foreseen consequences.

It is essential that LPAs retain their role in deciding which changes of use of empty premises are in the interest of the environment and the community and which are appropriate to a particular site.

Question 7: If you agree with the proposal what uses do you think should be allowed on a temporary basis?
NORA does not agree with granting permitted development rights for two years, because it is vital that LPAs control even the temporary use of properties in the interest of the long-term vitality and viability of commercial districts.

Question 8: Do you think there should be permitted development rights to allow hotels to change to residential use without the need for a planning permission?

It is difficult to conceive of a change of use of a hotel, guest houses, etc., to any other use but residential, and NORA would support this where there is a need for more housing. Allowing permitted development rights for a change of use, for example, to Use Class C3 would automatically grant the right for a change of use to Use Class C4, and that could be disastrous for the adjacent community.

Any conversion of a hotel to apartments needs careful attention to the effect on the environment in terms of social change, traffic and parking facilities, availability of appropriate services, size of apartments, storage space, etc. all matters best considered by the LPA with involvement of the local community and amenity societies where appropriate.

So changes of use of empty hotels, etc. to dwellings should be encouraged, but LPAs must be empowered to grant or refuse planning consent. Pre-application consultation must be mandatory to ensure the best solution to the problem of a redundant hotel, guest house, etc.

Question 9: Should thresholds and limitations be applied to reduce the potential impact of any permitted change of use?

To add thresholds and limitations to more permitted development rights will only make the process more complex. That this question needs to be put does indicate that the proposals are undesirable. Please leave the decisions to LPAs and the relevant elected members.

Question 10: Are there circumstances that would justify a prior approval process to allow the local authority to consider potential impacts?

The current planning process already provides opportunities for pre-application consultation, which may indicate to the developer that approval is likely. Involvement of the community, amenity societies and elected representatives ensures that the planning process is a democratic one and meets the government policy of encouraging localism. Granting more permitted development rights is inimical to these interests.

Question 11: Are you aware of any updates or amendments needed to the descriptions currently included for the existing Use Classes?

NORA members have expressed concern regarding two issues.

The first is that Betting Shops are buried in the wrong class. They may be labelled as shops, but they should not be classed in Use Class A2. They cannot be regarded as ′financial services′ such as banks and accountants, since Betting Shops are more akin to casinos, which we trust is not true of banks and accountants. Betting Shops should be regarded as ′sui generis′ or in Use Class D2, that is recreation and leisure along with ′bingo halls′.

Secondly, new supermarkets can appear without planning consideration of their particular operation processes. Creating a new Use Class A6 to include convenience stores of more than 250 sq.m. sales area would ensure that they could only occur with planning consent.

As discovered in the response to the 2011 Consultation Paper on the possibility of changes to the Use Classes Order, nearly all parties including NORA concluded that the current system works well, and see no good reason to change it in respect of empty properties. Today's problems experienced by developers are due primarily to lack of demand and lack of funding and not to difficulties in granting planning consents for changes of use. In the current economic climate developers are likely to experience more difficulty attracting funding for projects than they experience in obtaining planning consents.

Question 12: If yes, what is the amendment, and what is the justification?

The appearance of Betting Shops in town centre retail areas is not adequately controlled by the current planning regime. Promoters can change town centre premises with a Class A2 use into a Betting Shop without needing planning consent. As a result some shopping streets have acquired an unacceptable number of Betting Shops. If Betting Shops were either ′sui generis′ or in Use Class D2 they would come under planning control, since town centre shops are usually not in Use Class D2 and a change to sui generis use would need consent.

Supermarkets appearing without planning consent, especially in residential areas, can cause serious environmental problems due to servicing operations. Multiple food retail chains service their stores in a different way to independent shops; very large refrigerated lorries deliver to a number of small supermarket units run by the same operator. This causes local issues with noise, difficulties with hours of delivery, and issues of blocking highways where on-street deliveries are the only option. Small multiple food retail units are often located in otherwise residential areas so the impacts of servicing on nearby residents need to be assessed through a planning application. Accordingly a new Use Class A6 would ensure that the LPA and the community can determine whether it is appropriate development.

Question: Impact Assessment Do you have any comments on the assumptions and analysis set out in the consultation stage Impact Assessment? (See Annex 1)
See also the further specific questions within that Impact Assessment.

NORA's comments to the questions in the Impact Assessment are appropriately covered by the answers to the numbered questions.

August 2012                                                 Alan B Shrank - NORA chairman