After some electoral reversals last year, the Tory government put on hold multiple controversial changes to the planning system that they had, until then, been proposing. During the Chesham and Amersham by-election campaign, for instance, the Lib Dems were helped to victory by being able to quote ex-Prime Minister Theresa May's criticisms of Johnson's proposed planning changes against the Tories themselves! Unfortunately, this still didn't mean that Britain's planning system was spared from Tory interference.
To put it technically, on May the 30th last year the Government surreptitiously created a new Use Class (Use Class MA), in the country's planning system, which would become live on August the 1st 2021. This change didn't just suddenly allow the conversion of retail units (including High Street shops) to residential uses, which would normally (and for very good reasons), have been difficult to do before. It actually chose to put these conversions into the category of Permitted Development, where an applicant only has to notify the council that they are making this change, and councils then have extremely limited powers to do anything to stop it.
That means a Local Authority can't apply its chosen development plan polices in these cases - for instance policies like those meant to protect employment, to maintain the quality of new housing or to deliver desperately needed affordable housing! Like the (currently postponed) wider changes to the system, this undermines local planning control; it ignores the root cause of the current housing shortage, and it circumvents the rules on providing the kind of affordable housing which the country is so short of. Which was why this step was strongly criticised by numerous non-political national organisations: the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Town and Country Planning Association, the National Trust and even the British Property Federation, amongst others, are opposed to it.
As if to make things worse this has been introduced when British businesses are under unprecedented pressure (nationally one in seven Class E units - the kind which the new rule allows to be converted - are already empty), thanks to Covid. This change is likely to wreak havoc with the viability of UK high streets, and, if it does will to do so irreversibly - once High Streets have lost enough shops, they will never be able to recover, they will be High Streets in name only. A report from University College London last year was already predicting losses of High Street businesses ranging between 89% and 75%, with four out of five shops vulnerable, most of which will be small and locally owned.
Because of our alarm at the damage this national Tory policy could do, the Lib Dems put forward a motion on this subject which was debated at the Ordinary Council meeting on December the 8th last year. Our proposal was that the council should contact the Government officially, urging it to "listen to the expert advice of numerous Planning organisations, to protect the future of the UK High Street, and to scrap this ill-advised policy."
In fact, the council could do more than this - it could go through what is known as an Article 4 process, which would allow it to choose areas within the borough where this national policy would not apply. Any application to convert a shop to flats within the chosen areas would simply go through the normal planning process as before and be decided on its merits - in other words, it would be refused if, for instance, it harmed the local economy and introduced residential properties in completely inappropriate places (as it would be very likely to). Councils which have retained sufficient resources to be able to go through the necessary steps (and of course care enough to protect their local High Streets), can therefore head off the threat. At least one council had agreed to do so before the end of July last year (in other words preventing the change from ever affecting parts of their boroughs). But, after being hollowed out by more than a decade of Tory rule, Brentwood council neither has the resources to spring to the defence of its own High Streets like this, nor (clearly) cares enough to do so. And even though the Lib Dem motion simply proposed standing up for local High Streets by literally sending a message to the Government that "This council wants its High Streets to thrive and not die," not one single Tory councillor was prepared to vote in favour of it; one Tory abstained, the remainder blindly voted the motion down.
Voted the motion down, and, of course, have since taken no other step to prevent the destruction of local shops that will be caused by this policy from their national colleagues.
Brentwood deserves better than the Tories - Brentwood deserves councillors who will fight for your local area as Lib Dems do, not stand idly by whilst our borough suffers further from national Conservative stupidity, as Brentwood Conservatives repeatedly do."