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What’s The Use?

No – not a cry of frustration, but a few notes to clarify the mysteries of the planning use categories that relate to property – commercial and residential.

The Town & Country Use Classes Order 1987 placed properties in different categories depending on their use it has been subject to change at various times resulting in the following most commonly found categories:

  • Class A1 (Retail) i.e. shops, supermarkets, hairdressers, sandwich bars
  • Class A2 (Financial & Professional Services) i.e. Estate Agents, Insurance Brokers, Banks and Building Societies
  • Class A3, A4, A5 (Food and Drink) i.e. restaurants, wine bars, takeaways
  • Class B1 (Business) i.e. offices, light industrial, laboratories
  • Class D1 (Non Residential Institutions) i.e. medical surgeries, public hall, churches, schools, cinemas and nursing homes

We receive a regular flow of enquiries from applicants looking for premises from which to run their business. Many, however, are unaware of the Use Classes Order and the need to ensure that their proposed business complies with the permitted planning use.

Under the planning rules if someone wants to use a shop (Class A1) as a restaurant (Class A3) they have to apply to the Council for change of use. The same applies for A2 to A3. Conversely under the “permitted development rules”, it is possible to change down the Use Classes Order from A3 to A2 or A1 without applying for consent. However, this does not happen very often as normally shops with A2 or A3 consent are more valuable as the Council usually try to restrict the number of non-retail premises.

The shopping parades in any town are normally classified either as primary shopping frontages, secondary shopping frontages or those that are non-defined. In the former two cases the Council will try to ensure that the percentage of retail units does not fall below a minimum level usually specified in the District Plan. Elsewhere there are no specific rules and each case will be judged on its own merits.

A few years ago the demand for shops was weak and the only tenants interested in taking premises were those operating restaurants or takeaways. The Council tried to maintain control but often they lost their case at appeal as the Planning Inspectors considered it would not affect the vitality or viability of the town at that time. Some argued that it was better to let the shop as a restaurant who paying and providing employment, rather than let it stand empty.

Like all rules and systems there are some anomalies. For example, you can serve reheated cooked food (using a microwave) in a shop under the A1 category or even provide hot beverages such as soup, but as soon as you cook food – perhaps in that same microwave – you fall within Class A3 or A5. Sub categories already exist within Class B1 (Business). These are B1 (a) Offices, B1 (b) Research and Development and B1 (c) Industrial purposes appropriate to residential areas.

The Council will occasionally try to limit the intended use to one of the above sub-categories to minimise the risk of nuisance to adjoining occupiers or if they want to ensure the use of the building does not change. Without such restrictions an occupier could convert a light industrial unit into offices without having to obtain consent.

Another interesting feature of the planning system is the concept of Established Use. This is where someone who has used premises in a certain way for more than 10 years without Planning Consent can obtain an Established Use Certificate which will protect them from enforcement action in the future. A good example of this relates to the accommodation above shops, which was originally used as residential. As very few traders now live above a shop, most flats are used for storage or offices. If they can prove they have done so for over 10 years they can apply to the Council for an Established Use Certificate which will then allow its continued use.

Finally, there is a group of properties that does not fall within any Use Class. They are defined as Sui Generis – in a class of their own. This relates to activities such as car repairs, theatres, petrol stations and launderettes. Any proposed change from one use to another has to be approved by the Council as it helps to control the impact of potentially controversial uses on the surroundings.

By the way, residential property falls within Class C3, but that’s another story.

If you need help and advice finding your way through the planning minefield, McNeill Lowe & Palmer Chartered Surveyors will be able to help.

Tim Palmer

Tim Palmer

Tim has enjoyed a career in the property business covering Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire for over 30 years.

Tim's full profile | Our Team

Tags commercial retail

Category Commercial