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'A Blunt Instrument' for post-COVID Property Landscape

View profile for Denise Bull
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A Blunt Instrument for post-COVID Property Landscape

A legal specialist with 30 years’ experience and a portfolio of clients across Hampshire has voiced her concerns over changes to the new ‘Classes Order’ introduced by the government in an attempt to help commercial property owners and managers cope with the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Denise Bull, Partner of Hampshire law firm Dutton Gregory Solicitors, does not believe the government’s revisiting of the property ‘Classes’ system will be sufficient to promote the radical changes that are needed to our high streets to induce regeneration.

‘There can be no doubt that the pandemic has dramatically changed the future of commercial property,’ she says.  ‘With shopping online, video conferencing and the newly found culture of ‘hybrid working’ becoming the norm, property owners, developers and local authorities are looking for ways to recreate environments that will bring back prosperity to their communities.’

Up until recently, the granting of planning permission for a material change of use of buildings or land, such as changing the use of offices or shops, involved the navigation of a time-consuming and onerous process.

On 1 September 2020, the Government implemented significant changes to the ’Use Classes System’ through the new Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020 (SI 2020/757) (Regulations).

‘Whereas there were numerous individual Classes for shops, eateries and offices, they are now all included under a new ‘Class E’ for ‘commercial, business and service’,’ Denise explains. ‘This is supposed to make it easier for buildings to be repurposed in response to the various demands of landlords and tenants due to circumstances brought about by COVID-19.’

Denise points put that whilst tenants are likely to be in favour of this flexible new approach, landlords may be less so. ‘New activities in retail parks, for example, might make a site lose its appeal to new tenants, running the risk of them looking elsewhere. However, Class E premises are still constrained by stipulations of existing planning permissions, section 106 agreements, any legal constraints such as restrictive covenants, and physical alterations that could still require planning permission’

The government hopes that diversification will present opportunity, development and enterprise that will allow neglected areas to blossom once again, in accordance with how people are now choosing to live their lives.

Local authorities, however, are quietly expressing concern at the potential of losing control over the strategic development of areas under their supervision – they may have a mission to encourage café culture and interactive entertainments, but end up with something entirely different from businesses that don’t share their vision.

Commercial real estate owners must think creatively and make use of the new legislation to adapt and provide an environment attractive to a variety of workers, residents and visitors in order to futureproof their assets, but time will tell if this can satisfy all those with a stake in the future of commercial property.

‘I think this is a blunt instrument and will not encourage the partnerships needed between businesses and local authorities to re-energise important spaces,’ concludes Denise.  ‘I hope I am proved wrong, but I believe, after what has happened in the last 18 months, something radical needs to happen to our built environment to make if fit for a new generation.’