Buckinghamshire Council speaks out to defend local high streets

The Leader of Buckinghamshire Council has today written to Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State at the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) urging the government to pause proposed changes to planning rules due to come in on the 1st of August.

The proposed new rules will effectively give developers the green light to automatically convert retail or commercial space along prime high streets into residential use without needing planning permission. Whilst acknowledging that our shopping patterns are changing and that in the future many of our High Street shops may need to be repurposed for residential use, Martin Tett is today warning the government to take a different approach.

Local voices squashed

The new planning rules mean developers will not need to get planning permission and can automatically replace retail space in key shopping locations with residential units under ‘permitted development’ – meaning that using new national rules, they will automatically be allowed to go ahead without any consultation or permission needed at a local level.

“Giving automatic rights to convert prime retail space into residential space removes any local power for communities or councils to take measures to protect and invigorate our main high streets. National rules will squash our local voices” says Martin Tett. “We simply should not take a ‘one size fits all’ national approach to this” he cautions. “This proposed change risks putting power completely in the hands of developers and leaves local communities and local authorities powerless to shape the future of prime high streets in our towns and villages. Each town and each high street have their own dynamic, their own evolving retail footprint and its own place at the heart of our communities – high streets are part of the hyper local economy of a town or a village.”

“Without the vital sanity check and safety net coming from local authorities, it could be open season for developers to break up and fragment key high street frontages and change the balance of our town centres. The Government’s proposed change to the planning system threatens the very core of what we are seeking to achieve in Buckinghamshire in protecting and renewing our high streets and shaping the future look and feel of what our town centres have to offer. “

UK planning control includes an ‘article 4 direction’ where councils can protect the character of an area which might be under threat – typically in its conservation areas. For example, this has been used to protect the older parts including medieval streets in High Wycombe.  An article 4 direction reduces the scope of permitted development and raises the bar that means most changes would require planning permission. This would provide some protection; however it takes anywhere between one and two years to put an Article 4 protection into place.

I am urging the Secretary of State to pause the introduction of the proposed changes by a minimum of one year to allow councils the time needed to enact Article 4 to protect high streets.

As the country and our town centres begin to recover from the many impacts of Covid, businesses are now to be placed at added risk by this new planning rule. The threat is multi-fold and finding a resolution is urgent.

Local example – the threat to Amersham

As an example, in Amersham, the prime high street is being threatened with the loss of key large retail units currently used by Waterstones and Superdrug. There are no suitable replacement local units and it is likely that both stores will leave the town. The current presence of these brands is pivotal to other smaller and independent shops opening in the town. If virtually unlimited conversion from retail to residential is allowed, then we could face the very real prospect of the prime shopping frontage being broken up and centres rendered unviable.

Objecting to the changes, the Town and Country Planning Association states this is ‘bad for local economies, bad for communities’ health and wellbeing, and bad for the recovery of our town centres’.

Martin Tett has invited the Secretary of State or any of the civil servants working on the new rules to come and see these issues in practice by making a visit to Amersham or any of the towns in Buckinghamshire to see the issues for themselves.