Your guide to Class MA – commercial to residential conversions

Your guide to Class MA – commercial to residential conversions Planning

Class MA is the government’s attempt to breathe new life into town centres. It’s a way to fast-track approval for projects involving the conversion of commercial units into residential properties.

The initiative is well time. Many town and city centres risk becoming hollowed out as working from home becomes an established phenomenon and more of us forego high street shopping for Amazon and eBay.

In this article, we cover:

What are Class MA buildings?

Class MA is a planning tool that enables the conversion of Class E commercial space into Class C3 residential units.

But it can also be used for conversions of non-commercial premises. For example, Class MA permits the conversion of a sui generis building like an indoor swimming pool into residential dwellings.

It’s part of the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO) regulations.

The result is that landlords, investors and developers can now more easily add value to vacant commercial spaces. Instead of having to go through normal planning processes, you make an application for prior approval.

The government introduced Class MA as a result of feedback on changes to permitted development rights in December 2020.

This was three months after they’d abolished classes A1 (shops), A2 (financial and professional services), A3 (food and drink), A4, A5, B1 (business), D1(a) (non-residential use – medical or health services), D1(b) (non-residential institutions – crèche, day nursery or day centre) and D2(e) (assembly and leisure – indoor and outdoor sports). At the same time, they introduced classes E, F.1 and F.2 three months earlier.

What rules apply to a potential Class MA permitted development?

Local authorities must assess any conversion project where Class MA rules may apply for the following issues:

  • Transport impacts, especially the ability to ensure safe site access
  • Building-related contamination and flooding
  • Potential noise impacts on future residents from nearby commercial buildings
  • Environmental impacts on a conservation area if the building is located in one
  • You must ensure that all habitable rooms have adequate natural light
  • How the interests of intended occupiers are balanced with commercial interests (specifically stakeholders involved in general or heavy industry, light industrial, waste management, distribution and storage)
  • Community impacts if your development involves the loss of services because it will require the closure of an existing health centre or registered nursery
  • Fire risk if the building you wish to develop is 18 meters or taller or has over 7 stories above the ground floor

If your proposed development is in a conservation area, planners will also assess the environmental impacts of your project. Likewise, you’ll need a Heritage Impact Assessment if you convert part or all of the ground floor.

When the rules don’t apply

You can’t apply under Class MA if your building is part of or within:

  • A military explosives storage area
  • A listed building/scheduled monument or land within its curtilage
  • A safety hazard area
  • A Site of Special Scientific Interest
  • An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
  • A National Park or World Heritage Site specified under Section 41(3) of the Wildlife and Countryside Act by the Secretary of State
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Applying to your local planning authority

Before you start the project:

  • You must apply for prior approval
  • The building must have been empty for a period of at least three months
  • The building must have been in Use Class E for two or more years prior to the date of application
  • The maximum floor space of your development is 1,500sqm

The prior approval process takes 56 days from the date your application was received.

Your application pack will need to contain:

  • A statement explaining how many residential units you’re creating
  • A floor plan for each unit with the size of each dwelling (including room uses and dimensions), windows, doors, walls and elevation
  • Your details and details of any developer you’re working with.
  • If you need to consult with the Environment Agency because you’re within a flood zone, an assessment of the flooding risks specific to the location of the building
  • £100 application fee

Be prepared during the process to answer questions on issues like the provision of adequate natural light, potential effects on transport of your development, contamination risks and more.

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Class MA FAQ

What is a Use Class Order?

The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order defines specific categories (use classes) for various types of properties and land use. These uses include residential use, commercial use, industrial use and so on.

The purpose of having use classes is to streamline planning. It’s generally hard to change a building’s use class because planners must take into account the effect that such a change would have on neighbouring residents and businesses.

How does prior approval differ from planning permission?

The prior approval process is different from applying for planning permission. With prior approval, you notify the local planning authorities that you intend to exercise permitted development rights. They reply with a determination on whether they agree with your assessment that prior approval is required.

In other words, a prior approval application is being judged against certain legal requirements that are, in general, much easier to achieve than a full-blown planning application.

What are Use Classes M, O and E? And how do they relate to class MA?

Class M is concerned with retail-to-residential conversions while Class O deals with office-to-residential conversions.

The goal of Use Class E is to permit retail, business and leisure activities within buildings to support High Street without requiring developers to apply for standard planning permission.

Class MA compliments Classes M and O. Class MA shares many issues with Class O including the consideration of transport, highways, contamination, flooding, and adequate natural light issues in an application.

What is the definition of existing use under Class MA?

For Class MA use to apply, a building must have been within Class E (or within the use classes it replaced) for a continuous period of two years before you make an application for prior approval.

The government has provided no strict guidance to developers on whether a building should have had the same use or a mix of uses in that time. However, the Explanatory Memorandum provided doesn’t seem to attach a great deal of importance to that consideration.

What are building vacancy requirements?

For Class MA conversions, the building you wish to develop must have been vacant for a continuous 3-month period before you apply for prior approval.

Working with an experienced Class MA architect

For a Class MA project, you need to involve an architect from the outset.

At an initial consultation, your architect will assess the project’s feasibility and advice you on compliant designs. They also assist with preparing prior application documents and answering local authority questions.

During the construction phase, your architect is on hand to ensure that the project is proceed to the agreed plans and complies with Building Regulations. Upon completion, they help you obtain the necessary certificates and work on any remaining issues.

Case Study: Class MA architect, behind the scenes

We spoke with Roberta Sanna, one of our firm’s most experienced architects, about a recent Class MA project she was overseeing. The project involved the conversion of commercial space into eleven residential flats while retaining the last remaining commercial unit, a lighting shop.

One complexity of the job was that the building, an old corner plot, was situated in a conservation area, facing a park and a churchyard. Any alterations to the facade required planning permission due to its sensitive location. The facade was left alone as a result/

Conversion to residential uses posed a number of challenges. Uneven floor levels across the different buildings required clever solutions for effective vertical connectivity. Ensuring proper thermal and acoustic insulation between the flats and the shop was a key consideration. Insulation layers not only ensure comfort and privacy but are also critical in meeting fire safety regulations. The building had an unusual shape as, over time, it was the coming together of many different buildings. The shape and its corner location demanded a comprehensive fire strategy from the very beginning.

Despite the complexities, the process proceeded smoothly. Our client was very helpful throughout, providing the team with clear ideas that guided the design process. This resulted in features like double-height spaces and mezzanine floors, making the most of the building’s high windows.

The project is now in the building phases. It serves as a prime example of how Class MA conversions, despite their challenges, can breathe new life into commercial spaces, particularly in town centres where parking provisions are limited.

Work with our team on your application for prior approval

The opportunities for developers, investors and landlords are there. And with a chronic housing shortage and government support, many believe that now is the right time to get involved in Class MA commercial to residential conversions.

At WindsorPatania Architects, we strive to exceed your expectations at every stage of the project. We look forward to working with you. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Image credits – Bernard Sharp (Hull) and Jaggery (Wellington),

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