Architects’ Journal March 2007 [as delivered] 

Two of the principal legal mechanisms for maintaining planning control are the Use Classes Order (UCO) and the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO). Both have evolved to become complex to the point of sclerosis.

A review of the GPDO is already under way as discussed in AJ 12/10/2006, page 104. The Barker Review of planning supports this process and suggests it be widened to embrace smaller commercial developments such as shop fronts and signage. Pursuant to the Review, a member of her team is now drafting a new Use Classes Order and it is my contention that it should follow a similar direction to that being taken with the reform of the GPDO.

The Order provides that a change of use is not to be regarded as involving development where the former use and the new use are both within the same Use Class. At the last count we have 15 different classes of use broken down into 42 subdivisions. In addition, many uses are defined as sui generis, ie of a class of their own, and so cannot be changed to anything else without an express planning permission.

The Barker Review of Planning makes these points about the control of uses:
“A marked reduction in the extent to which sites are designated for single or restricted use classes could improve efficient site provision… In addition, … national policy should reflect the need for planning to be more responsive to changing circumstances.”

Her recommendation 6 includes:
“a marked reduction in the extent to which sites are designated for single or restricted use classes – the need to ensure provision for live–work units is relevant in this context; the impact principle could also be brought to bear on the Use Classes Order… But in reality there may be numerous instances where a change of use has no impact. Requiring planning approval in these circumstances loads extra burdens onto the system for no public interest benefit.”

A rare example of a relaxation of the UCO was the merger in 1987 of light industrial with office uses to create the ‘Business Use’ class. This change has been attributed as giving as important a boost to the economy as Big Bang. It illustrates both the power of the Order to inhibit the economy and how out of touch with reality it gets.

The Association of Consultant Architects (ACA) has responded to government consultations with a proposal that there should be just three classes of use: Domestic, Commercial and Noxious. Although elegant, majoring on impacts should eliminate Noxious, while live-and-work will straddle Domestic and Commercial, perhaps suggesting the obvious: there should only be one class of use and changes between all uses should only be regulated in relation to their impacts.

OK, maybe a bit too ideal and it fails to acknowledge legitimate, positive policy aspirations, such as maintaining a certain proportion of retail frontages in designated high streets. But not so fanciful if we look abroad. On the continent there is generally nothing to prevent a solicitor or a dentist setting up shop in a flat, or vice versa. The building illustrated contains at least five different classes of use!

The ACA produced concise proposals in its response to the Barker Review which were listed in AJ 18/01/2007, page 36. In the same spirit, control of changes of use should be managed only in terms of impacts and conflicts such as noise and other disturbance and traffic, and by reference to clear, unambiguous, positive and up-to-date policies.

Brian Waters is a chartered architect and planning consultant: