The first day of spring is often glorious, and last Saturday was no exception. The sun shone; the cherry trees in our garden are in full bloom;* and MHCLG released another flurry of planning announcements aimed at getting England's high streets and coastal towns ready for summer**.

Given the timing of the announcements, which come ahead of the easing of Covid restrictions and within a few hours of warnings that booking foreign holidays would be premature, it would be fair to say that the Ministry is anticipating another summer of the Great British Stay-cation.

In addition to the extensions to the temporary PD rights for pubs and restaurants, that Stuart commented on earlier in the month,  we now have a rule change that will allow marquees to be erected in pub and restaurant gardens for the whole of the summer. At present, such temporary structures can only be lawfully kept up for 28 days without requiring planning permission. 

MHCLG also announced the launch of a new £56 million Welcome Back Fund intended to help local authorities spruce up town centres and coastal towns, in a bid to increase local tourism over the summer. 

The types of projects envisaged by MHCLG include:

  • investing in street planting, parks, green spaces and seating areas;
  • Running publicity campaigns and prepare to hold events like street markets and festivals;
  • Installing signage and floor markings to encourage social distancing; and
  • planting flowers or removing graffiti

We also saw the announcement of the first 70 councils who are to be supported by the High Streets Task Force.

Interestingly there was nothing in this flurry of high street focused announcements to assist Local Planning Authorities with how to navigate national and local retail planning policies in a post Class E world. 

As most of you will be aware, the introduction of Class E, last summer, was one of the most radical shake-ups of the planning system in recent memory. 

By moving shops, restaurants, cafés, offices and professional services, light industrial units, nurseries, dentists and Dr's surgeries into a single use class- the government single handedly removed the need for planning permission for moving between these uses in most circumstances. 

This fundamental change has not, however, been recognised in national planning policy. The NPPF's chapter on 'Ensuring the vitality of town centres' still requires a sequential test for all new planning applications for 'main town centre uses' despite the fact that the vast majority of existing town centre units may well be able to change uses without involving the planning system at all.

The government's proposal to introduce a new permitted development right to allow Class E units to be converted to residential use will further loosen most councils' control over the make up of their high streets. Making it much harder to plan for their revival.

Interestingly, these proposed PD Rights got a mention in Saturday's press release - despite the fact that MHCLG have yet to respond to the consultation that proposed them. 

They are included in a list of other measures that MHCLG have announced to support town centres as follows:

"The High Street Homes Permitted Development Rights will make it easier for disused buildings to be repurposed and provide housing"

This could be seen as an indication that a response to the consultation is likely to be forthcoming in the near future. Indeed, it needs to be, as the transitional provisions which allow us to read old use class designations into the general permitted development order expire on 31 July 2021.

As such, unless the government is prepared to let the current raft of permitted development rights that allow changes from offices, retail units etc.  lapse entirely they will either need to:

  • Introduce their replacements; or
  • Extend the current transitional provisions 

before 1 August 2021.

That does not give them much time at all to consider the many (and often critical) responses to the Class E to Resi consultation and formulate a response.

Perhaps MHCLG is not quite as summer ready as the weekend's flurry of announcements would have us believe.

*although technically the tree in the picture is one of our neighbours 

** as well as one aimed at giving Councils greater powers to build more affordable housing.