Changes by stealth- how much do you love your High Street?
One of the big concerns held by campaigners and concerned citizens recently has been that changes introduced ‘temporarily’ during the pandemic might be carried over after the return to normality without any consultation. This has been a particular concern when it comes to low traffic neighbourhoods and other traffic changes- which we’ve written about extensively in the past.
It seems we may now have a confirmed example of where this concern might become more valid. Amongst others, one of the major changes we saw during the pandemic in planning was the introduction of permitted development rights to allow commercial buildings to be converted into homes. We even saw a court case about it, Rights:Community:Action, where the government successfully defended a challenge against their decision not to reconsult on certain matters.
According to a report in the Times today, the Government intends to make permanent these changes, with one minister arguing that the future of the high street “is going to be massively residential”. Quite the statement for a Government which has frequently spoken about the need to support the high street and not one that is likely to be entirely free of controversy.
Now, we don’t have absolute clarity yet on how this retention will work, or indeed whether they will bypass consultation to keep the measures. If they do, then there could be cause for concern. Last week we commented on the need to get back to normal, whilst retaining the lessons we have learned during the pandemic. If this report is true, and the Government does not intend to undertake some form of ex post facto consultation on them it sets a very risky precedent and not one we would encourage other consultors to follow.
Particularly with potentially controversial changes such as this it is important to allow policies to be challenged, as much as anything to improve them. With many communities still having a strong emotional attachment to their local high streets (albeit one which, objectively speaking perhaps does not bear as much relation to the realities of the situation as might demonstrate true support- when was the last time you shopped properly on the high street instead of nipping to Tesco and then sitting at home to wait for your Amazon order?), if developers were to turn high streets into avenue-esque elongated housing estates how would this go down with the public?
The pandemic will change the way we live and work, and will require an adaptive approach by both government and the public. But we would advocate a cautious approach to the casual disposal of public consultation as a mechanism for accountability and checks on new policy and legislation. As of yet, we have no further information on these proposals, but we’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on them to ensure that the proper democratic process is still taking place.