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.

So, what’s the use?

August 12th, 2013

We planners like things to be orderly. Forget shades of grey – the majority of planners (and particularly those in local authorities) seem to see things as black or white. To such people, then, the use classes order (UCO) is veritable manna from Heaven. With one stroke, just about any activity can be classified into a simple series of categories, from where policy judgments can be made about the acceptability of said use.

An A3 take away use in a key shopping (A1) parade? That’ll be in conflict with the policy to protect town centre frontages, then. An A1 foodstore in an industrial estate zoned for B1, B2 & B8 uses? That’ll undermine employment land supply and be contrary to employment policies.

It sounds straightforward and logical, but alas as time has moved on, the use classes order in Wales has not kept up with those activities people want to undertake.

Trade counters are now a key element, and some would say critical element, of modern industrial estates yet often do not fit squarely into the B8 use class. Since the change in the licencing laws, many pubs have evolved into drinking establishments with a dance floor. It is left to fact and degree to determine at what point such a use becomes a nightclub or a mixed use. These are just illustrations of where the UCO has failed to keep up with the modern Wales.

In a pragmatic world, the application of sensible judgment to the slightly antiquated UCO ought not to present any problems. After all, national guidance in Wales is now underscored by the objective that economic development ought to be supported, even if it means flexing a bit on other considerations.

It is disappointing then that too many Welsh authorities continue to blindly apply the policies of their development plan to specific use classes, regardless both of national guidance and the reality of the circumstances before them.

Yes, that shop unit may be in an established parade, but it has been vacant for three years, detracts from the character and appearance of the area, costs the landlord empty rates and creates no local employment. Is a café in such circumstances really something to be resisted?

That industrial estate may be identified for traditional employment uses but isn’t zoning an area for employment all about the jobs, at the end of the day? It doesn’t take a genius to see that major new industrial and warehousing investment in the Principality comes along about as frequently as Halley’s Comet, so perhaps the jobs arising from a supermarket ought to be given some weight in the planning balance?

The current consultation on the new TAN for economic development in Wales presents an opportunity for the Welsh Government to underscore the need for a pragmatic approach towards use classes where jobs and investment are at stake. More fundamentally, however, the Planning Bill presents a real opportunity to provide a use classes system in Wales that reflects modern day land uses.

So will WAG show us that it is committed towards a flexible and responsive planning system that meets the needs of today? If it does not, then it surely it ought to be classified as sui generis. Of no particular use.