New flexibility for commercial buildings as rules allow empty premises to be changed into homes

In a further relaxation of planning regulations, new rules allowing commercial premises to be converted into homes kicked in at the end of March this year.

The government claims this will help give high streets “a new lease of life”, with other new rules also allowing for bigger extensions to existing public buildings.

The new homes will be delivered through a ‘prior approval’ process rather than a full planning application. The process will, the government claims, be subject to high standards, ensuring sufficient natural light and space is provided.

The move is part of a series of measures introduced with the goal of aiding the post-lockdown recovery of high streets. Other recent developments include allowing pubs and restaurants to operate as takeaways, more freedoms for outdoor markets and summer fairs, extended retail opening hours and the extension of provisions for licenses that enable outdoor dining.

Under the scheme that enables unused commercial premises to be turned into homes, local authorities will be able to consider the impact of issues such as flooding, noise, and the adequacy of natural light. The building which is changing use will need to have been vacant for 3 months prior to the application, and size limits will apply.

Time will tell whether the scheme will successfully breathe new life into ailing high streets, but some organisations have already expressed concern over how the quality of residential accommodation will be ensured.

The increased footfall to high streets as a result of more residential dwellings may help to provide a boost to retailers, pubs and restaurants, restoring a buzz to town centres which struggle to compete with out-of-town retail parks.

Alasdair Garbutt is a Legal 500-recommended partner in Willans’ commercial property team. He advises on a wide range of real estate issues, including sales & acquisitions, development transactions, landlord & tenant and property management matters.

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