Dark Kitchens – a planning dark art?
Despite the breadth of Use Class E, there are still many uses which do not neatly fall into any of the current use classes. One such use, which came into its own during lockdowns, is “dark kitchens”. A dark kitchen is essentially a production unit for restaurants who use the purpose built kitchen to cook and then sell food on a delivery only basis. As customers never visit the site, a variety of different buildings can be reimagined for these purposes including warehouses and portacabins. Location is less critical so operators can target areas with cheaper rents.
However, setting up a dark kitchen is also a planning dark art. Whilst it is clear that the use isn’t as a restaurant, akin to the old Use Class A3, it isn’t immediately apparent what it is. Indeed, local authorities are taking different views as to how to treat dark kitchens for planning purposes. Camden Council, for example, considers the use to be sui generis (being a use of its own kind which does not fall within a particular class), whereas Nottingham City Council has included commercial kitchens within Class B1c (which now falls within Class E(g)(iii) (Light Industrial)).
Data Centres and logistics – a class of their own?
As another crucial component of a post-pandemic world and smart cities, data centres face a similar issue. Why doesn't the update to the Use Classes Order specifically recognise data centres, given the ongoing debates on how they should be treated and their increasing prevalence? As far back as 2019, one agent suggested that data centres were “in the top 10 sectors to invest in, following logistics facilities and residential-based asset classes”.
Data centres are sometimes classified as Class B8 (Storage and Distribution) as they are principally used for the electronic storage of data. However, as they operate in a greatly different way to many traditional storage warehouses, some local authorities consider them Class E (having previously viewed them as akin to office or industrial operations), or even sui generis.
Another emerging use without a clear home within the Use Classes Order, is last mile logistics, which covers the final part of a product’s delivery to the customer. This use has been driven by a rise in internet shopping and the utilisation of local fulfilment centres used by large online retailers. Last mile logistics also covers Click & Collect services, collection points and business to business deliveries.
As with data centres, last mile logistics is sometimes classed as storage and distribution within Use Class B8. However, the traditional warehouse locations and specifications often don’t meet the demands of being last mile (which ideally are placed near consumers) and many also have a retail element which could put them within Class E (as shops or industrial operations) or sui generis. Sui generis use, although potentially attractive for a local authority, is often less attractive to developers who face uncertainty when establishing new sites and who prefer the flexibility of belonging to a use class.
With the rise of home working and the consequential redistribution of the post-pandemic workforce, the need for data centres and last mile logistics is greater than ever before so a consistent approach on planning would give clarity to the industry.
Putting properties to use
Questions over use classes aren’t just part of an academic debate. As well as causing uncertainty, something which developers are keen to avoid, use classes impact asset management. The value of an asset is intrinsically linked to its use. Ultimately, a property which can only be used for limited purposes is less marketable. This may mean that landlords are reluctant to allow their properties to be put to uses without a use classes home, which can hinder the evolution of these emerging uses. Where a landlord is willing to accommodate a new use, it would be wise to consider applying for multiuse permissions which would allow greater flexibility.
Whilst the introduction of Use Class E has potentially created more fluidity between traditional high street uses, it has done nothing to provide more clarity on many emerging uses. It seems that these less traditional uses have been largely ignored by the government, despite their increasing prevalence.
It seems likely that the position will become more complex as the way in which we use space changes and new uses come to the fore. Every sector is adapting to changing demand and exploring new ways of post-pandemic working and living. Take the shift in retail, with many major brands opening up customer experience centres in place of traditional stores.
Use Class E may have bought some time with added flexibility, but how long will it be before the high street outgrows the current system? And how should we be planning for these uses which don’t fit neatly within the system? It is no longer sufficient for local authorities to simply consider traditional uses when preparing policy. Although it is hard to predict how the world will work in five or ten years’ time, it seems clear that our planning system needs further revision to ensure it can adapt to this post-pandemic environment and re-design for the future.
An earlier version of this article appeared in EG on 1 March 2022.
Authored by Rosie Shields, Jane Dockeray and Ingrid Stables.