Extending permitted development rights, changing vacant business rates, clearing up confusion on business rates, and ploughing public funds into local planning services, are all necessary if the region is to thrive over the next few years.
Extend permitted developments rights
Darren Sheward, head of office at LSH in Bristol, said that, after the General Election in May, he would like a commitment from the next government to extend permitted development rights (PDRs) as a way of encouraging business prospects in the South West and across the UK.
PDRs, which were introduced in May 2013, allow some building works and changes of use to be carried out without having to make a planning application to the local authority.
However, says Darren, the next government should both extend the scheme for office premises beyond May 2016 and reviewed every three years. The relaxation of permitted development rights should be extended to include light industrial buildings (B1(c)) and storage and distribution buildings (B8) so that they can be changed to residential use without planning consent and which has been mooted by the government but not legislated for.
“Permitted development rights have significantly helped to re-shape and bring back to full useful life a number of buildings in the South West, including Bristol,” he said.
“With a huge pressure for more housing stock nationally, we would like to see more use of PDRs and also extend it to encompass industrial buildings, which has been suggested by the government but not yet confirmed.”
Encourage local councils to get involved with development partnerships
He said the government should also encourage local councils to get involved with more development partnerships on city and town centre land holdings that have languished un-used for years.
“This is a really good way to encourage the revitalisation of vibrant town and city centres,” he said.
“It’s important that government drives home the message to local authorities that they should not sell the assets, but instead work in partnership with credible developers and investors to get the best possible value for local rate payers.”
Protect permitted development rights
Peter Musgrove, director of office agency at LSH Bristol, said the local professional and property markets need to work together on PDRs to ensure that areas are protected.
“PDR is an important development tool. However, for it to be used positively and for benefits to be maximised, there is a need to ensure that the right areas are safeguarded and there isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to protect everything through ‘NIMBYism’. The relaxation of PDR has been really good for most markets and we need to continue but in the right areas and on the right buildings,” he added.
Change the current vacant business rates policy
Peter also called for the next government to look at changing the current vacant business rates policy. “We need to somehow encourage landlords to refurbish offices buildings and get them available for the market. At the moment there is no incentive – the only way to get void rates for a longer period than the initial three months is for the space to be uninhabitable – that can’t be good for anyone. Offering a longer void rate period on new refurbished space will encourage landlords to spend money on buildings.”
Increase transparancy on business rates
Paul Stevens, director of rating, said post-election transparency on business rates, following the government’s decision to delay the revaluation process by two years, was crucial.
“A revaluation was due to take place on April 1 this year but that won’t happen until 2017. As a result there is still a great deal of uncertainty among businesses, which hasn’t been helped with the ill-thought-through tinkering with the system,” he said.
“This was illustrated by the proposal in the Autumn Statement that a time limit of 31 March 2015 should be placed on appeals if resultant savings are to be back dated.
“There is still no clarity on how this will work, which has the potential to result in all sorts of problems, with occupiers unable to recover up to five years savings in rates bills, and a tidal wave of appeals hitting a system already strained to breaking point by resourcing cuts.”
Inject public funds into planning for positive momentum
Meanwhile, Marcus Plaw, director of planning at LSH Bristol, called for the new government to commit to local planning services by injecting much-needed public funds to ensure that the positive momentum in the property industry is maintained.
“Council planning departments have struggled with funding cuts and staffing shortages, which has been even more noticeable in the past decade,” he said.
“The government has looked to the property and construction sectors to deliver economic growth but planning authorities have been left to respond as best they can. This has been made more challenging by a series of fundamental changes to government policy, plan making and permitted development rights.
“It is a nonsense for this to continue when local authorities have been streamlined significantly and others cut. Councils need to have government backing and money to ensure that planning services are effectively delivered so that the South West can thrive in response to the economic upturn.”