Labour’s announcement that it would give councils more control over “use classes” is extremely welcome. In England, any “development” requires planning permission, unless it is “permitted development”. However, under current legislation, many changes in the use of a building count as “permitted development”, and many more (specifically, changes within a certain “use class”) do not count as development at all.
Ed Turner is deputy leader of Oxford City Council
For local government to be meaningful and supported, it needs to have the power to make a difference over things that people actually care about.
Failing to give it the ability to do that risks fuelling disengagement – citizens might well ask why they should bother voting in an election if the outcome makes no difference, and those of us in local government can probably recount experiences where community groups have started with the bravest of expectations, only to peter out as they realise their hopes cannot be met.
In truth, successive governments have probably been more willing to give citizens the ability to challenge their local councils, rather than give citizens and councils, together, all the tools they need to shape their communities, especially in the shape of market forces.
This is why Labour’s announcement that it would give councils more control over “use classes” is extremely welcome. In England, any “development” requires planning permission, unless it is “permitted development”. However, under current legislation, many changes in the use of a building count as “permitted development”, and many more (specifically, changes within a certain “use class”) do not count as development at all.
Socially useful development
So, for instance, a switch from a cafe to a shop, or a pub to a supermarket, is permitted development, while a switch from an estate agent to a betting shop, or a local shop to a chain, is not development at all. Councils can undergo a complicated and costly process – called Article 4 directions – to remove permitted development rights (including providing compensation to disappointed applicants if applications are turned down in the first year). The are powerless to do anything where no development takes place.
And yet – the use of buildings is something communities care profoundly about, and rightly so. As David Lammy MP pointed out in the House of Commons recently, his constituency contained 39 bookmakers shops but no book shop, leading people, quite rightly, to petition the local council for action. There has been tremendous concern about the spread of payday loan companies and bookies, about the conversion of local pubs to supermarkets, and about high streets becoming increasingly dominated by chains rather than locally owned shops.
There are three policy responses to this conundrum. The first is for the government to redesign use-class legislation so that it accurately distinguishes between different uses and removes certain permitted development rights (and there’s a strong case for doing this in the case of pubs, as the Campaign for Real Ale argues).
Kudos to Labour
But Labour’s proposed approach seems to go further, and rightly so. This second response would instead allow local authorities, on behalf of the communities they serve, to define on the basis of local need which uses need greater control than the system currently permits.
A third policy response is to deny that there is a problem, and that the use of buildings should be left to the market alone. Ministers don’t like explicitly accepting this point (instead encouraging councils to apply for Article 4 directions – even if they might lead to Wonga or Ladbrokes receiving compensation for its planning refusals!).
However, their obstinacy in refusing to give local authorities greater powers in this area, and indeed in seeking to liberalise use class orders in some circumstances, suggests that market power will usually be prioritised over community needs in determining the use of buildings, rather than the other way around.
Already, local authorities can point to some successes in regulating the use of buildings. For instance, the London Borough of Waltham Forest has a planning policy in place which prevents hot food take-aways opening near schools, while many councils act to cap the number of take-aways or bars in particular locations.
But such powers are heavily constrained by central government, and prevent an effective response to local community concerns in many circumstances. Of course, local councils ought to have reasons for their actions – and such decisions should be based upon evidence, rather than prejudice – but current rules mean that in many cases, changes of use cannot be controlled at all, regardless of the degree of local concern and the weight of evidence in favour of a change.
For sure – changes to use class legislation won’t transform local politics overnight. But a willingness to put the needs of local people ahead of the market in this important area is an important change, and that is why Labour’s policy announcement should be wholeheartedly welcomed.
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