Planning Use Classes: How To Turn Property Challenges Into Opportunities

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Shifting a property to serve a new purpose means navigating Use Classes. Yes, use change conversions come with planning complexities, but they hide exciting opportunities. Ever dreamt of a whimsical transformation or a whole new appealing trait for your property? We have. Be it a new buy or transforming a tired asset, you can make it simpler with a guide to identify your property’s potential.

Cities change –that’s a fact– and properties that once were perfect fit and appealing fall out of use –also true– but that doesn’t mean you have to sit and watch your investment shrinking. So, let’s see how Use Classes work so you may see your property’s potential in a new light.

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WHAT ARE USE CLASSES

These nifty labels, courtesy of the UK government, basically tell you about your property and what you can and can’t do with it. More strictly, Use Classes are a way of categorising buildings and land based on their primary purpose. They bring order and clarity to urban planning, acting as directives for property use and outlining if and how changing from one use to another can happen. This order is detailed in the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes), established in 1987 and was last amended in 2020.

The good news is that change of use is possible without planning permission, yet in some cases, altering a property’s use necessitates full approval, and this is why meticulous planning and a good grasp of Use Classes become indispensable.

 

BENEFITS OF CHANGING USE CLASS

Astute property developers recognise that making informed decisions regarding Use Classes can significantly elevate a property’s value. A seamless transition between compatible classes can open up compelling possibilities, appealing to a broader spectrum of potential buyers or tenants.

Simply put, flexibility within Use Classes empowers property developers to adapt to evolving market demands. For instance, a property initially used for retail might seamlessly transition to an office space without extensive bureaucratic processes. This adaptability can be a game-changer in a dynamic market like the UK’s real estate.

 

CAN I CHANGE HOW MY PROPERTY IS USED?

Broadly speaking, if the intended use of your property falls within the same Use Class as its current category, your conversion –except for external modifications– could go without planning permission. However, changing a property’s use from one class to another is subject to certain conditions and limitations and prior approval. This flexibility comes with Permitted Development (PD) rights, facilitating smooth transitions between different uses within the same class. For instance, a conversion from a dwellinghouse (Use Class C3) into a House in Multiple Occupation or HMO (Use Class C4) may well be covered by PD rights and not require planning permission; however, a shift from a commercial (Use Class E) to a residential property (C3) often involves a change in Use Class.

The bottom line is that Permitted Development (PD) rights are devised to simplify minor or seemingly non-impactful changes, allowing you to alter property usage without navigating extensive bureaucratic processes.

However, PD rights are also governed by local planning authorities, which means the specific conditions and limitations of these rights can vary, reflecting local planning policies and objectives. For instance, you may have crossed paths with Article 4 Direction, a control whereby councils annulate PD rights, enforcing further restrictions on property conversions. How Article 4, a notorious consideration for HMO developers and landlords, affects property development strategies varies.

Permitted development rights are outlined by The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (as amended).

 

USE CLASSES: ORDER AND CHANGES

Over time, new classes have been introduced, rearranging now discontinued ones (e.g. A1, A2 and A3) for a more efficient approach, reflecting, and merging according to community-related uses. The following simplified guide highlights the current classification of Use Classes, illustrating the types of properties, possible changes and restrictions under permitted development.

Class B2: General Industry

  • Focuses on broader industrial activities like manufacturing.
  • Often allows transition to storage or distribution (B8) without full planning permission.

Class B8: Storage and Distribution

  • Covers spaces convertible into dwellings with prior approval.
  • Broad use potential, including retail or manufacturing.

Class C1: Hotels and Guesthouses

  • Tailored for hospitality without significant care services.
  • Potential for conversion to educational use.

Class C2: Residential Institutions

  • For care-providing residential facilities, including nursing homes, hospitals and residential schools.
  • Convertible for educational purposes.

Class C2a: Secure Residential Institutions

  • Encompasses prisons and detention centres.
  • Convertible for educational use.

Class C3: Dwellings

  • Diverse class for residential spaces, used as sole or main residences for up to six occupants (single household).
  • In many areas, converting a property from a Dwelling (C3) to a House in Multiple Occupation (HMO – C4) often falls under permitted development rights.

Class C4: HMOs

  • Houses in Multiple Occupation with a maximum of six occupants (multiple households).
  • Can revert to dwellings, offering flexibility.

Class E: Commercial, Business, and Service

  • Broad category for mixed services, including shops, financial and professional services, restaurants, and cafes.
  • Offers conversion possibilities, for example, to residential use (C3) or educational institutions.

Class F1: Learning and Non-residential Institutions

  • Schools and public institutions, excluding those involving residential use, for instance, museums, places of worship, public libraries, and exhibition halls.
  • Allows temporary adaptations; otherwise, it requires full planning permission.

Class F2: Local Community

  • Local amenities and community facilities, including places for outdoor recreation and shops selling essential goods.
  • Maintains core use to support local cohesion. Thus, change of use must go through full planning permission.

Sui Generis:

  • Unique classification for properties that don’t fit within the use classes, such as HMOs for seven or more occupants, theatres, petrol stations and casinos.
  • With the appropriate approvals, conversions under Sui Generis allow for diverse and extraordinary transformations.

 

5-STEP CHECK TO IDENTIFY YOUR PROPERTY’S OPTIONS

First, let’s reinforce a core consideration in property development: specific details, regulations, and requirements vary based on the local planning authority and the unique characteristics of your property and its location. That’s why a robust strategy starts by consulting with planning professionals and councils for accurate and up-to-date information based on your project.

So, in the context of Use Classes, how can you identify where you stand with your property and what’s possible to do with it? In a simplified way, you must be able to answer some basic questions before moving forward with a conversion plan.

  1. Determine Current Use Class: Is your property’s current use class aligned with the type of use you want to transition to?
    • Yes: See step 2
    • No: You can explore options within the current use class instead or consider changing the use class –go to step 5, Change of use between two different classes.
  1. Review Permitted Development Rights: Does your intended conversion fall under permitted development rights for the current use class?
    • Yes: Step 3
    • No: Consider seeking planning permission or explore other options within permitted development rights.
  1. Prior Approval Consideration: Does your intended conversion require prior approval, even if it falls under permitted development rights? E.g., is your property a listed building, in a conservation or an Article 4 area?
    • Yes: Your process will involve applying for prior approval from the local planning authority (LPA) and waiting for their decision.
    • No: Step 4
  1. Change of Use Within the Same Use Class: Is your intended change of use within the same use class?
    • Yes: Assess whether external alterations are needed. If not, you may be able to proceed with the change of use –ensure you have expert advice and a solid confirmation!
    • No: You can either explore other options within the same use class or, if you choose the alternative, prepare for a conversion involving change of use class (step 5). 

If you are uncertain about the status of your intended conversion, consider applying for a Lawful Development Certificate. This document confirms whether your development is lawful and within permitted development rights.

  1. Change Between Two Different Use Classes: Do you want to change your property’s use class to a different one?
    • Yes: First, verify if the desired change is allowed. If so, you’ll proceed with the necessary applications and approvals –in addition to financing, budgeting, and all other parts of your strategy.
    • No: Explore alternative options within the existing use class or consider other feasible changes.

When diving into property development, think of Planning Use Classes as more than just paperwork hoops – they give you a roadmap for property transformations and potential. With a solid understanding of the regulatory landscape, you can advance your project and avoid unnecessary hurdles. Expert advice can shed light on your best way forward.

Our seasoned HMO Architect team can help you turn ideas into assets, keeping your property project compliant while achieving its full potential. Have you got a project in mind? Let’s chat and turn your vision into reality!

Picture of Giovanni Patania

Giovanni Patania

(Architect Director, Co-Founder)

Giovanni Patania is the Lead Architect and Co-Founder at HMO Architect and Windsor Patania Architects.

Originally from Siena, Italy, Giovanni worked as a Project Lead Architect at Foster+ Partners, designing Apple stores across the world,

An HMO Investor himself, Giovanni understands property thoroughly, both from an investor's perspective and technically, as an Architect.

With over 15 years of HMO development experience, working on over 150+ HMOs and a 95% Planning and Building Regulation success rate, Giovanni has the expertise and credentials to help you on your HMO journey."

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