Class F: The Forgotten Class

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Since changes were made to the Use Classes Order in September 2020, discussion has largely focused on the impact of the new Class E on our town centres and retail destinations.  Class E wraps up the majority of commercial, business and service uses into one all-encompassing ‘commercial class’ allowing unprecedented flexibility between uses and potentially benefiting around 1.5 million buildings.   These newly introduced Class E freedoms have understandably captured the headlines over the last year.  In contrast, Class F – Local Community and Learning is sometimes overlooked, despite the class including some of our most important community uses and institutions.  Here we briefly look at Class F; what uses it incorporates, what changes are permitted within the class and the issues associated with its introduction.

The Government’s stated purpose of reforming the Use Class classifications was to ‘give high streets the ability to adapt quickly to new uses where they might be greater value’.  The changes are intended to increase the speed in which buildings can be repurposed and to allow a building to be used flexibly by having a number of uses taking place concurrently or by allowing different uses to take place at different times of day.  Class F was effectively introduced as a safeguard in order to protect learning uses (Class F1), such as schools, libraries, art galleries etc, and community uses (Class F2), such as small isolated shops, community halls, outdoor sports areas etc.  As a result of the changes, the former Class A and Class D were revoked with Class D1 split out and replaced by the new Classes E(e-f) and F1, whilst Class D2 was split out and replaced by the new Classes E(d) and F2(c-d), as well as several newly defined Sui Generis uses.

Class F – Local Community and Learning

So, what does Class F entail, and what falls within it? Class F refers to Local Community and Learning, covering uses in the now revoked classes D1, ‘outdoor sport’, ‘swimming pools’ and ‘skating rinks’ from D2(e) and incorporates newly defined local community uses.

Class F is split into two main parts, F1 and F2, and the uses are defined as the following:

F1 Learning and non-residential institutions – Use is divided into 7 parts, and largely covers some of the former use classes D1 (non-residential institutions):

  • F1(a) Provision of education
  • F1(b) Display of works of art (otherwise than for sale or hire)
  • F1(c) Museums
  • F1(d) Public libraries or public reading rooms
  • F1(e) Public halls or exhibition halls
  • F1(f) Public worship or religious instruction (or in connection with such use)
  • F1(g) Law courts

F2 Local Community – Use is divided into 4 parts, and covers some of the former use classes of D2 (non-residential institutions) and some uses that government wishes to protect for use in the community that were formerly D1 or A1:

  • F2(a) Shops (mostly) selling essential goods, where the shop’s premises do not exceed 280 square metres and there is no such facility within 1000 metres.
  • F2(b) Halls or meeting places for the principle use of the local community
  • F2(c) Areas or places for outdoor sport or recreation (not involving motorised vehicles or firearms)
  • F2(d) Indoor or outdoor swimming pools or skating rinks

What changes are permitted within Class F?

Additionally, it is important to understand what changes are permitted within Class F. Under the September 2020 changes, planning permission is not required for changes within the same Class F1 and F2. This means that many types of non-residential institutions, such as schools, museums, and libraries, for example within Class F1, will be able to change the uses of properties without seeking planning permission. Similarly, the new concept of Class F2 has been introduced to ensure that important community facilities are protected through the planning system, and, again, changes within this class do not require planning permission. However, use changes between Class F1 and F2 are not permitted without planning permission.

The limitations of Class F

In reforming the Use Classes Order, the Government made clear that Class F was intended to protect valued learning and community uses.  In many cases, these uses are not necessarily the most commercially attractive options for property owners or developers and are therefore at risk of being lost had they not been included in Class F. The reason for creating Class F is therefore logical.   But is Class F doing its job?

One issue is that the new Class F does not scoop up all the learning and community uses that local authorities have historically sought to protect through Local Plan policy. Indeed, not all former Class D1/D2 uses have found their way into Class F.  For example, clinics, health centres, creches, nurseries and day centres – which are commonly accepted community facilities in planning policy terms – have moved from the former Class D1 Non-residential Institutions into Class E Commercial, Business and Service, as opposed to Class F Local Community and Learning.  The rationale behind excluding these uses from Class F has never been made clear. Previously, many Local Plans required robust justification for the loss of these types of facilities and/or their replacement.  Class E now allows the change of use of clinics, health centres, nurseries, creches and day centres to other town centre uses (Class E) without the need for planning permission.  As a result, unless there are historic restrictive planning conditions or s106 covenants in place on a specific building (or indeed the building is listed), the changes to the Use Class Order have left local authorities with limited scope to protect existing facilities.

Whilst it is difficult to know how many existing clinics, health centres, nurseries, creches and day centres may have been lost as a result of their inclusion in Class E, any loss is likely to have been mitigated to some extent by the additional flexibility afforded by Class E to open new facilities.  These uses can now occupy a much wider range of space without requiring planning permission. A vacant town centre shop can now be more readily repurposed as a nursery for example.  Arguably, there is now more scope for market forces to play their part in ensuring that new clinics, health centres, nurseries, creches and day centres can pop in where there is a demand.

There are also other recognised community facilities that did not to make it into Class F.  Cinemas, concert halls, bingo halls, dance halls, and venues for live music performance were all moved from the former Class D2 Assembly and Leisure to Sui Generis. Again, it is unclear why these uses have all been moved into the Sui Generis category rather than Class F.  Whilst the Sui Generis categorisation ensures that local authorities have the ability to fully consider the impact of any change of use through the planning application process, it also removes any flexibility to change between the uses without planning permission (or indeed to allow a mix of part uses within one building). Gyms and indoor sports halls, on the other hand, now benefit from much more flexibility having been moved into Class E.

In summary, last year’s changes to the Use Classes Order have certainly afforded developers and investors the flexibility to increase the speed of repurposing buildings. The desired protection of local community assets under Class F2 and learning and non-residential institutions under Class F1 is justified.  However, the exclusion of certain uses (e.g. health centres, nurseries) from Class F1 and their placement in town centre uses (Class E), as well as the exclusion of certain uses (e.g. cinemas, dance halls) and their categorisation as Sui Generis has largely been left unexplained.

It is perhaps too early to say what impact the creation of Class F will have on the provision of learning and community facilities in our already changing towns and communities, but it is certainly one to watch.  It is also interesting to see how local authorities seek to tackle the provision and protection of learning and community uses in emerging local plans following the creation of Class F.

Article by Rory Coles