The Bartlett School of Planning


Turning Shops into Housing? Planning Deregulation, Design Quality and the Future of the High Street

Clifford, B. & Madeddu, M. in Built Environment

1 March 2022


The changing fortunes of the high street have been a subject of interest for some time, with a view that trends such as the shift to more online retailing as well as changing pa erns of work, mobility and prosperity may impact the viability and vacancy of retail units. These pa erns and concerns have been exacerbated by recent governance reforms in England. At the same time as a global pandemic has reduced footfall and threatened many shops with closure, the government has been deregulating the urban planning system so that local governments have less ability to exert control over the use and design of buildings. This has been seen particularly in the form of what is known as 'permi ed development', which allows commercial buildings to be converted to residential use without needing planning permission and which was increased in scope in August 2021. This deregulation has been driven by a neoliberal, market utopian understanding of the so-called 'housing crisis' in England. An existing trend of converting high street shops to residential use is thus likely to accelerate. In this article, we examine the drivers for adaptive reuse of commercial buildings as residential use and the deregulatory governance context currently surrounding this in England. We then consider data on the rate of conversion and provide case studies of diff erent quality conversions of shops to dwellings, arguing that there is insufficient a ention being paid to design quality, particularly in terms of the quality of housing being provided for residents of these conversions. This might mean that conversions threaten the wellbeing of residents – consigning them to 'future slums' (BBBBC, 2020) – and also the vibrancy of high streets and the broader quality of the public realm. We argue that incremental conversions, not bound within any broader planning, of high street functions (or what it means to lose active frontages, without compensation) are a threat to overall place quality. We therefore propose design principles and make policy recommendations that seek to achieve the eff ective governance of commercial to residential conversion whilst sustaining that place quality.

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