Proposed changes to the national planning system could have a far-reaching and long-lasting impact on local areas, Richmond Council has said in a letter to Robert Jenrick MP.

Richmond Council has submitted a formal response to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s (MHCLG) consultation on ‘Supporting housing delivery and public service infrastructure’, as well as a letter to Mr. Jenrick, the Secretary of State, from Councillor Julia Neden-Watts, the Chair of Richmond’s Environment, Sustainability, Culture and Sports Committee.

The consultation sets out the proposal for a new permitted development right (PDR) to allow buildings currently in commercial, business or service use to be converted to residential use without a formal planning application. It also sets out measures to “fast track” public service infrastructure through the planning system, including new schools, hospitals and prisons.

If these PDR measures come into force, they could have a major impact on Richmond upon Thames’ town centres, high streets and local centres. They could also impact the local economy, which is already struggling with on-going restrictions on retail, hospitality and service businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Developers could be permitted to convert shops, bars and restaurants into homes, without consulting with the local council or the local community. Without oversight the Council will be unable to ensure that social infrastructure and support services are sufficient to support an increase in people living in an area, or to ensure that any new housing does not negatively impact the local area or existing communities.

Furthermore, planning-free change of use to residential could see the disappearance of available premises which will be critical to the recovery and growth of local high streets after the pandemic.

The Council believes that the proposed measures will undermine Richmond upon Thames’ Local Plan and the plan-making process, and the fundamental premise that the planning system in this country is plan-led.

Cllr Julia Neden-Watts said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the importance of essential local facilities that are key to supporting sustainable communities. These permitted development right proposals would occur at the worst possible time, clashing with the economic and social recovery process and undermining the adaptation of our centres to become diverse, vibrant and successful locations once again. The effect on our high streets if shops and services gave way to higher value residential use would be devastating.

“Delivery of housing must not be at the expense of social infrastructure, particularly facilities that provide for young children or help residents lead active and healthy lifestyles.”

The Council has also stated that the proposed measures contradict Mr. Jenrick and the Government’s commitment to giving more power to local councils to make their own decisions.

Cllr Neden-Watts added:

“Following Mr. Jenrick’s decision to give the Mayor of London planning authority for Richmond’s Homebase redevelopment last month, I am severely disappointed that these permitted development right proposals are further indication that what the Government says and what it does are not aligned.

“The Government claims that it is committed to giving more power to councils and communities to make their own decisions on planning issues at the local level wherever possible, yet these proposals do the opposite. They would both threaten and undermine the borough’s ability to plan for its employment, commercial and social infrastructure needs and to plan for homes in the right places.

“Richmond’s Full Council passed a motion last week condemning Mr Jenrick’s decision on the Homebase application. Council officers have reviewed the decision-making process thus far and consider there to be no grounds for a judicial review, but we will keep working with residents and ward councillors to explore options. We will remain opposed to the Government’s continued push to de-regulate planning in this way and we will stand up for local people’s right to have a say in what happens in their area.”

– from a Richmond Council press release - 2 February 2021