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Appetite for disruption?

  • United Kingdom
  • Real estate


As you cancel next month’s train tickets and retreat into the spare bedroom, you might be mistaken for thinking the Government have been oblivious to the impact of another six months of all this on the office, retail and leisure market. Not a bit of it, if you scratch beneath the surface of recent planning reforms it is clear that they have read and understood all the signs of the inevitable impact.

Most planning freedoms are provided by relaxing permitted rights. The obvious advantage of this approach is that it allows for sensible limitations and conditions and a degree of later correction. The disadvantage is that Councils can issue Article 4 Directions to revoke the rights and clearly the Government find this approach frustrating.

Use Class Order (UCO) changes are fairly exceptional and are usually directed and reforms in modernisation of the system. Past revisions to the Use Classes Order have been fairly functional. You can get a sense of this in the previous round of changes in 1980s which moved from the ‘pick ‘n’ mix 19th Century’ industrial world to the ‘redbraces and massive mobile phone’ world of light industrial and storage and distribution.

The new ‘Class E’ is a different beast. It is very much more the stuff of market disruption and you can see the fingerprints of free-market politics all over it. For a stable and bland planning system, the changes are profound. That’s because Class E now rolls together in one group retail, financial services, indoor sports, health services, nurseries, offices and light industrial. You can now move from one to other (and back again) without engaging in any lengthy planning process.

This might all look fair-game in a town centre and why wouldn’t you have a free market there? Well possibly, but is there really any such thing as a definitive town centre these days?

You only need to look at any meandering High Street to appreciate that any unrestrained move to clusters of drinking establishments might well destroy the character of your area. It gets even messier if you step outside traditional retail areas and consider offices and leisure centres in remote locations or cheek by jowl with residential properties.

It is, however, important to note that it is not all over and this brings us to the ticking time bomb in the UCO reforms. This is identified at Regulation 1(3) of the Class E revisions which defines “the material period” as being from 1 September 2020 to 31 July 2021. In this period the “any references in the GPDO to the uses or use classes specified in the Schedule… are to be read as if those references were to the uses or use classes which applied in relation to England and were specified in the Schedule to the Use Classes Order on 31 August 2020”.

This is the sleeping reform and the real revolution in these changes which hasn’t taken effect yet and won’t until 31 July 2021. That date will roll around fairly quickly and when it does the ability to transition all these new Class E uses to unfettered permitted residential uses will be upon us. This is the point when these reforms will take off and the disruption to our property market will really begin. This isn’t a mistake. It has all the hallmarks of a deliberate progression of these reforms.

The point being that the Government recognise the need for profound change. It is this immediate response to the extraordinary world that we will re-emerge into in six or more months’ time.

This is all fairly hard to fathom for most of us, but then isn’t that the whole point of the politics of disruption?