An irreverent look at some of the hot topics in planning. All commentary is given in good faith but does not constitute advice! For specific help on planning matters, please contact us.

Developing in Wales – Is Welsh Government making it Mission Impossible?

March 19th, 2024

It does seem at times that Welsh Government is on a mission to use the planning system to make repurposing of existing commercial space in Wales more difficult. We only need to look at a few recent changes to give credence to this view.

Biodiversity Net Benefit was embraced by Welsh Government some years ago but only recently has it sought to enforce this through planning decisions. The intention is of course laudable, but unlike in England where the equivalent system includes some exceptions, it applies to all forms of development. Quite right, I hear you say. We want all development to support the environment, right? Well, per Section 55 of the 1990 Act, development also includes change of use. So a business wanting to take up a vacant employment or commercial unit that needs a change of use consent will now not get that permission unless they now show an enhancement of biodiversity.

In practice that presents some real problems. As a result of the extremely poor economic climate, new leases are often very short term and the new tenant often has little scope, either physically or financially, to make physical changes to the building. How do you provide a biodiversity net benefit on a shop unit in the heart of St Davids Shopping Centre, for example? Apart from putting a few cactuses on a shelf, that is it. You are stuck.

Green Infrastructure Statements, too. Utter nonsense for change of use of urban premises or existing industrial or business units, especially where the intended tenant is on a short term lease.  The guidance does say that GISs should be proportionate to the use; but it does not make any exceptions for the requirement.

What about Gigabit broadband. Again, a great idea. Wales does need to be better ‘connected’. Let’s ignore for a minute the fact that Gigabit broadband is now so woefully inadequate for those businesses that actually need an internet connection for substantive work, but the aspiration to at least up the ante is on its face a good thing.

However, and critically, Welsh Government has again failed in the application of its intentions.  Specifically, it has failed to make clear how this relates to changes of use of existing buildings, and commercial premises in general. The consultations were all about new homes, and upgrading of Part R of the Building Regulations.    Yet Future Wales (FW) and PPW12 have properly fudged the issue. While PPW12 at Para 5.2.21 says “new development” (which would not be limited to dwelling and would include a change of use) the supporting text is crafted on the basis of new build development.

FW adopts a slightly different, albeit equally confused, line, stating that the purpose of requiring this in ‘new development’ is that it “.. helps negate the need to retro‑fit developments in the near future to accommodate fibre or any new technologies that arise. “    The fact that it is intended to negate retro-fitting would surely suggest that it does not apply to existing buildings?

Yet the guidance is so poorly written and contradictory that some, let’s say less pragmatic, authorities are requiring it for every application that graces their mailbox.  In one case we have the Council telling us that we need to dig up an existing operational yard to lay cabling that the business neither wants or needs.  The consultation documents were mindful of the cost implications of broadband upgrading and discussed limiting the cost to £2000 per dwelling.  yet because none of the consultations actually considered this requirement would be extended to bisiness premises, no thought was given to the cost to business of this requirement.  Moreover, none of the cost balancing considerations ever made it to the planning guidance anyway,

As written, in the hands of some authorities, this poorly explained policy could be an investment killer when it comes to repurposing existing vacant commercial space.

If Welsh Government is serious about supporting this type of investment in Wales and growth of businesses, it needs to address the increasing complexity and the planning system for business, not least by taking more care in crafting its own policies.  It also needs to remind some Welsh authorities that their job is to facilitate investment and development and not to lay down traps and obstacles to stop it from happening.