On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to soften the economic impact of Covid-19, including a £5bn investment into infrastructure. 

For those involved in constructing infrastructure projects in the public sector, this is a welcome piece of news!  For everyone else, your immediate reaction may well be “so what?”.

For “Project Speed” to go ahead, the Government has also announced changes to property planning rules, which will come into force in September 2020.  The PM has described these as “the most radical reforms” of planning since the Second World War, with a view to build “faster, greener and better”.  The changes are anticipated to include:

  • A wider range of commercial buildings being allowed to change to residential without the need for a planning application – you will likely be aware that there is already a lot of scope for re-purposing redundant offices as residential properties, particularly the smaller “above the shop” type of premises that line many high streets in the country.
  • Builders will now no longer need a formal planning application to demolish and re-build vacant and redundant residential and commercial buildings if they are to be re-built as homes – it will be interesting to see what safe-guards there are to those affected by such works.
  • Property owners will be able to build additional space above their properties via a fast-track approval process, subject to neighbour consent – again, the consent process is going to be very interesting.  There are similar analogies with the legislation controlling work on party walls, which have led to a whole raft of legislation and an entire industry for specialised party wall surveyors.

A further interesting change is the ability for commercial property owners to re-purpose redundant retail premises.  The demise of high street retail premises is something that we have all observed over the last decade. With many high streets housing a large number of charity shops or independent shops that last a few months or so, it does not indicate a vibrant local economy.  However, post-Covid many landlords will probably be very happy to have any tenant at all rather than be compelled to cover the cost of a void premises.

The PM’s announcement provides some hope that this could change, however: the proposal is that retail premises, which fall within Use Class A1, will be permitted to re-purpose as cafés within Use Class A3 and also, potentially, as offices within Use Class B1 of course.  Some of you may be aware that it has already been possible to re-purpose a food and drink establishment as a shop without express consent.  It seems unlikely that this is going to be a common change of use out of commercial lock-down. Many cafes are actually operated out of Class A1 premises anyway (thank you for that one Starbucks).

Re-purposing as an office space may, however, be of more interest than it would have been pre-Covid; many city-based organisations are looking at moving to a “hub and spoke” arrangement whereby they maintain a smaller city centre office but their staff has the ability to work from regional hubs dotted around the city.  With excellent communications, both by rail and road, High Wycombe and Amersham (where we have offices ourselves), along with the surrounding area,  would be obvious places for such organisations to look.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak will outline the details of the first phase of the recovery plan next week.  We will ensure to keep you updated with any relevant developments.

If you have any questions on what this means for you and how you might be able to make use of these changes then please feel free to contact Joe Florish in our Commercial Property Team on 01494 932612 or via e-mail on jsf@blasermills.co.uk