Last week, we saw friends and families reunited, our favourite shops, pubs and cafés reopened and an injection of sunny optimism into hospitality and our high streets as we move to the next stage on our road map out of the lockdown. To help these measures, my Department has introduced crucial planning easements, including fast-track pavement licences, which are helping to make al fresco dining a reality, enabling communities to hold popular outdoor events such as markets and allowing pubs to set up marquees in their gardens for the whole of the summer—all without the need for costly planning permissions.
In Romsey and the surrounding villages, much use has been made of the planning easements by pubs, cafés and restaurants to install temporary awnings, marquees, gazebos and so on. Please can my right hon. Friend reassure me that plenty of time will be given to pubs and so on before these structures have to be removed? In many cases, they will continue to provide additional capacity even when indoor socialising is allowed, and our hospitality sector has had a very tough year.
I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend’s constituents, like millions of others across the country, are making use of these easements to enjoy the summer sunshine and to support local pubs, cafés and restaurants. When the first lockdown began, we inherited a planning rule called the 28-day rule, which enabled a business to set up a marquee or another temporary structure for just one month without seeking planning permission. We doubled that, and now we are bringing forward the legislation to ensure that that will remain in place for at least the whole of the summer, and I hope perhaps significantly longer. That will enable small businesses the length and breadth of the land, like those in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, to put up those marquees and gazebos, and get the full benefit of them.
Our town centres lie at the heart of our communities. They should be a source of pride and be attractive to visitors, but vacant buildings have become a blight in many of them. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is taking steps to make it easier for vacant buildings to be repurposed or demolished, so that we can make sure our town centres are attractive places that people want to visit?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our high streets have been hit hard by the pandemic, but the market forces have been amplified and magnified. These are very long-standing issues and ones that we have been focused on for some time. We need to make some fundamental changes to ensure that we have a flexible planning regime so that businesses can adapt and evolve, for instance by turning a café into a hairdressers or a yoga studio into an office, all without the need for costly planning permissions, and where businesses and buildings are sat empty and derelict, then to be able do the logical thing and turn them into something else, particularly homes. That is exactly why a few weeks ago we brought forward the planning changes to do that, and I hope that will see hundreds, if not thousands, of homes being created in our town centres and on our high streets over the course of this year.
The Secretary of State’s Department is bringing forward further permitted development rights that will allow gyms, crèches and offices, as well as shops, banks and restaurants, to be converted into homes without going through planning permission. Has the Department conducted an impact assessment of how many cafés, pharmacies and corner shops will be lost from our high streets, never to return?
The hon. Lady will be aware that we have approached this issue with great caution and due consideration. We have consulted on those matters and received thousands of responses, and we have made our proposals on the back of that, so they have been carefully thought out to consider some of the issues she has raised. We made a number of changes, to protect, for example, nurseries and to provide further protections for conservation areas, but the Opposition’s approach, which could be characterised as the ostrich’s head in the sand, is not the one that we have chosen to take. We think that high streets and town centres are undergoing the biggest transformation not just in our lifetime but at least since the second world war and that we need to introduce measures that are proportionate to the scale of the challenge. That is why we are making billions of pounds of investment through our towns and high streets and levelling-up funds, and that is why we are pursuing the planning reforms that the hon. Lady refers to, and I think most reasonable people across the country would agree. I note that in her own constituency Mike Cartwright, who runs the Bradford chamber of commerce, seems to agree. He says:
“Having unused space is bad for the economy,”
“buildings remaining empty for years is to no one’s benefit.”
We agree; that is why we are taking action.