The impact of planning deregulation on rural economies

The English village of Bicester

You’d think a Government whose MPs disproportionately represent rural areas would want to help village shops and high streets survive and thrive… wouldn’t you?

But a policy put in place to respond to the twin realities of a shortage of homes and declining demand for business and retail space in urban centres is threatening to destroy rural village centres, bit by bit, year by year.

This is what is called ‘permitted development’ – changes that Councils can’t prevent because they have been made part of national planning policy. In an effort to get a lot more homes created the Government gave a right to most business owners to convert their premises to residential use. In cities the very real concern is about the quality of the ‘homes’ that are created – but it has meant tens of thousands of homes have been enabled.

Unfortunately, no one seems to be paying attention to the impact in rural villages and small market towns. It threatens to turn thriving mixed communities into housing estates, destroying what’s left of village high streets and squares.

Ah, the government will say – we thought of that! There is a protection for the village shop. Well yes, if it is the sole mixed retail within a kilometre – but that actually only applies to the notional ‘village shop’ that is the only one left in the village.  The problem is, this over time is massacring retail in villages that still have a range of retail and food outlets – such as very many in Cornwall. From little communities like mine in Roche, Cornwall, that despite being impoverished still had a decent range of shops, to thriving tourist coastal communities with a beating heart of small shops and cafes – none of this is protected.

The former local convenience store in the Cornish village of Roche.
The former local convenience store in the Cornish village of Roche now converted to residential units.

The Government says not all is lost. In special cases the council can use ‘Article 4’ directions to remove national permitted development rights. But this power is extremely limited – it can’t be applied a whole council area like Cornwall, it has to be targeted on a specific community where there is a very special case to avoid “wholly unacceptable adverse impacts” such as the loss of the essential core of a primary shopping area. It is hard to argue that a village is a primary shopping area, and in planning law ”wholly unacceptable” is a very high bar.

The reality is these tests are almost never met – and councils have almost never done it.

The result is that we can no longer protect village shops from conversion to residential until they are the last one standing. In attractive rural areas the value of a house beats a shop every time. There are many villages/small towns in Cornwall PD is impacting – not just in the tourist coastal communities but throughout.

Take my village of Roche. The settlement is 1000 homes. It is a mining community in the china clay area, so relatively low value – but even here the residential value far exceeds commercial retail value. That’s the reality of Cornwall. Today we still have a fair range of shops – a co-op, Chinese takeaway, pizzeria/kebab takeaway, fish and chip shop, pasty shop, small grocers, laundrette, beauty parlour, a pub. However, we have just lost our 100 year-old very popular butcher who had a thriving business but is now converting to three residential units on his retirement. Before that we lost a general store/newsagent, our other pub, and the post office. The rumour is several more are likely to go, it’s just a matter of time. This is despite our up-to-date local plan opposing the conversion of retail units. The council says it can’t defend the policy due to the introduction of permitted development and the fact that they are not the last unit standing. The pressure in more popular villages is even more severe.

Roche's 100 year old butcher shop is closing down, and being converted into residential units.
Roche’s 100 year old butcher shop is closing down, and being converted into residential units.

Until these rules were introduced such units were generally protected from conversion. They therefore offered low rent low cost retail units to local entrepreneurs, and did not stand empty for long. To exercise the right to convert they now just have to be empty three months and ‘marketed’ for existing use – but if the price is set high, there are no takers and so the die is cast.

Clearly the conversion policy was aimed at larger towns/cities where there is oversupply of retail and consolidating town centres makes sense, and protection was given to the ‘imaginary’ isolated village store in tiny rural villages. But no real thought seems to have been given about impact on larger villages/communities in rural areas with high residential  values and low retail values where a genuine range of shops/cafes etc still thrived – till now. Bluntly in a few years these will be wiped out in communities in Cornwall over time if permitted development remains the rule.

So Conservative Government – care to do a bit of conservation and once again protect the villages of England? It’s in your hands. Or it will be too late.

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