By Daniel Hunter
Planning rules which come into force in England today (Thursday) will significantly reduce people's ability to have a say on important changes in their area and risk 'draining the life from high streets'.
Councils are warning that Government's attempt to breathe new life into empty buildings by removing safeguards on how commercial properties are used risks doing the opposite. Instead it could lead to more high streets being over-run with clusters of betting shops and payday loan companies.
From today, business owners and developers will no longer need permission to change the use of certain buildings from one type of business to another for up to two years. It means that premises previously used as independent gift shops could be turned into payday loan companies while greengrocers could become betting shops, without the need for planning permission or public consultation.
The reforms will also allow almost any buildings to be temporarily turned into new free schools with no public consultation or planning permission. And in many parts of the country, developers will be given free rein to convert offices into flats without planning consent.
The Local Government Association (LGA), which speaks on behalf of more than 370 councils in England and Wales, is calling for Government to let local areas decide for themselves where it would be beneficial to relax planning rules. This would make it easier for new shops and businesses to open up where they are wanted and needed, while protecting local democracy and reducing the risk of unintended consequences.
Local authorities believe that the key to reviving high streets lies in encouraging the opening of businesses that residents want there, Councils are warning that today's reforms will make that more difficult.
A Comres poll carried out for the LGA last year found that two out of three members of the public (68 per cent) were against lax planning rules which have allowed high street banks to be turned into betting shops without permission because they both fall under the same planning category of financial services.
Today's changes will mean that betting shops, for instance, could now open up in a wider range of buildings without permission such as those previously used as a shops, leisure centres, and cinemas.
"People tell us that they're fed up of having their local high streets filled with betting shops and payday loan companies," Cllr Mike Jones, Chairman of the LGA's Environment and Housing Board, said.
"We have been clear that if we're to get people back out shopping in their local town centres, we need to give them more say on what type of businesses and shops open there. Instead, from today they will have less.
"There's a very real danger that, in chasing a short-term boost, this panic measure could end up creating real problems in our high streets and doing lasting damage to our town and cities. This could potentially drain the life from our high streets.
"Planning controls are not there to make life difficult for new businesses but as a form of democratic quality control which ensures new shops and businesses will be good for the area and the people who live there. Councils are currently approving more planning applications than ever before.
"We desperately need to boost struggling high streets and help new businesses take over empty buildings, but a blanket national policy is not the answer. Councils aren't seeking to stop bookies from opening up altogether, but it's important that local areas can have a say.
"Most people would be more inclined to visit their local high streets if they saw a resurgence in the sort of cherished local, good quality shops, restaurants and businesses which can be at the very heart of communities. Instead, this blanket national policy will make it easier than ever for high streets to become ghettos for clusters of here-today, gone-tomorrow money lenders and betting shops.
"Converting offices into flats, cafes into betting shops or businesses into schools can have a huge impact on the character of local areas and people will rightly feel that they should be entitled to have a say."
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