Michael Gove will loosen planning laws to allow vacant shops to be converted into homes as part of his latest efforts to tackle the UK’s housing crisis.
On Monday the minister for housing and levelling up revealed a slew of planning reforms as well as a further commitment to building over 1m new homes across England, which is part of his party’s Conservative manifesto to build 300,000 homes a year by the mid-2020s.
“We are unequivocally, unapologetically and intensively concentrating our biggest efforts in the hearts of our cities,” Gove told attendees of the London speech.
The idea of transforming shops and restaurants into homes has been floated as an idea for some time within the property sector and has been viewed as a way to transform the UK’s high streets, which have in recent years suffered from an uptick in empty lots.
Previously, stricter planning approval laws have prohibited this, but Gove now has plans to relax these requirements.
This means that developers and businesses could transform a vacant storefront into a home without requiring planning permission, also known as permitted development rights.
“Not every empty building will be right [in delivering] decent quality homes,” Melanie Leech,head of the British Property Association, told City A.M.
“I think it’s going to be a case of where it’s possible, where it makes sense [and] where you can deliver the kinds of homes we really want to live in.”
Nick Diment, head of retail planning at global property consultancy Knight Frank, told City A.M. that the use of permitted development allowing commercial space to become residential is “nothing new”.
“Today’s announcement is just the latest in a long line of initiatives intended to revitalise our town centres and deliver much needed housing,” he said.
“The problem to date has been that, while the principle is laudable, when you get into the detail it’s simply too restrictive. In addition planning permission is still required to change the external fabric of the building.”
He added: “Simply put, permitted development is not the way to achieve the government’s manifesto promise of building 1m new homes in England by the end of the current parliament.”
The UK’s housing crisis has largely been fuelled by a lack of supply, especially in the number of councils and affordable homes being built.
In London, mayor Sadiq Khan has hit his homebuilding target of starting 20,000 council-built homes between 2018 and 2024, according to figures released by City Hall, which represents the highest number built in such a time period since the 1970s.
The housing and levelling up secretary cited the “ambitious approach” of Margaret Thatcher and Michael Heseltine and warned housing “inefficiency” is costing Britain’s productivity.
Speaking at the King’s Place, Gove said rural house building was greater than in urban areas, with “population densities much lower than comparable competitor western nations, we occupy more land with fewer people”, which he said was putting more pressure on suburbs.
Gove said: “We’re planning to intervene using all the arms of government… our ambition in London is a Docklands 2.0 – an eastward extension along the Thames of the original Heseltine vision.
On top of new measures to free up retail space for housing, Gove also announced reforms of the planning system and rounds of investment to “get through planning backlogs”. He pledged to simplify and speed up the process of updating local plans for new builds, and to invest in “quality planning” with £24m of added investment.
The main keywords were regeneration projects for 20 towns and cities up and down the country, “gentle” densification and “beautiful” homes.
In policy terms, it will mean investing in regeneration of the centres and infrastructure of many towns in the North, being creative with brownfield development while trying to protect the green belt, and ensuring local communities support the new housing they get.
On the latter, Gove wasn’t too specific on how this goal would be achieved, aside from referring to the proposal to introduce street votes on new developments.
Gove also confirmed the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill would remove hope value, so that developers and councils can convert unused land into new housing more efficiently. Labour suggested the same policy back in May.
“We need housing today, not tomorrow and that is why for the last year we, along with almost 50 organisations ranging from Barratt Homes, G15, the National Housing Federation to countless SMEs, have been campaigning for a small site planning policy,” Marc Vlessing, chief executive of, Pocket Living, said.
“Through simple changes to national policy, which could be enacted overnight through ministerial direction, the government could unlock literally thousands of small brownfield sites across England with the potential to deliver up to 1.6m homes. But sadly, thus far, the government has not delivered against our initiative as they have kicked it into the long grass of ‘NPPF consultation.”