Planning law revolution: new opportunities for life science businesses

The life sciences industry is cautiously welcoming news of an overhaul in planning law in England and Wales that promises to ease the path to increasingly flexible and more nimble operations, write Lauren Fendick, Partner, and Clare Harman Clark, Senior Professional Support Lawyer, Taylor Wessing

Planning rules in England and Wales were set out to manage development and change of use in the physical landscape.

Since its initial enactment, the Use Classes Order (UCO) prescribed a strict series of use classes that have framed planning law and townscapes ever since, restricting the potential use of a property to uses within its designated class — whether A1 (retail), for example, through to storage and distribution (B8) or hotels (C1).

To date, limited freedoms to move between these classes without planning permission, as set out in permitted development rights (PDR), have offered the best chance for property owners and operators wanting flexibility in their business or asset management plans.

Chances are, therefore, that businesses operating in England and Wales are already intimately familiar with at least one of the existing use classes … and conscious of the need to commit time and money to obtain permission from the local planning authority to do something different.

All change

In this context, the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020, introduced on 20 July 2020 and taking effect on 1 September, are potentially revolutionary.

A new Class E (Commercial, business and service) sweeps up numerous categories across the old classes, meaning considerably more scope for change of use without planning permission.

Any property once pegged for the old class A1 (retail), for example, can now be used for shops, professional services, a creche or even indoor sports.

A new lease of living

For burgeoning sectors such as life sciences, the freedom and flexibility that this planning news brings is very welcome.

Many life sciences firms have already set up shop on focused life sciences campuses, benefiting socially and operationally from incubator spaces and the meeting of minds that these sites afford.

Critical mass can bring additional benefits in terms of logistics and investment in what often amounts to complex laboratory and storage fit-outs.

Still, early stage life sciences businesses are traditionally reliant on finding properties with the research and development use class (B1b) or, even, the use class capturing industrial processes (B1c) … and there’s now far more opportunity to dip a toe into a more urban environment.

These companies may avoid the costly gamble of applying for consent to change; they can now operate from a far wider number of property options and turn planning attention and resource to any structural or appearance works necessary to conduct the use, not the use itself.

Conclusion

There will certainly be new opportunities on high streets and elsewhere to rejuvenate mothballed premises with commercially viable uses. A broader pool of tenant bidders for any space could impact positively on rental investments.

In the meantime, from a planning perspective, investors in and operators of life science spaces can focus on the transitional arrangements and the campus developments around them to plan for today and tomorrow.

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