Oxford Labour has spoken out against changes which propose allowing shops to be closed down permanently, and turned into residential accommodation.

The coalition government is consulting (here) on proposals which will give “permitted development” rights to people wanting to turn shops into flats. It recently changed the rules so that these could happen for a two-year period, and has now proposed such a change be made permanently.

In Oxford, there is a pressing shortage of housing, and one side-effect of that is that the value of land for residential uses is often much higher than for other uses such as retail or employment. Therefore, Oxford Labour believes that the government’s proposal may see local shops closed down and turned into flats, meaning that existing residents and communities lose out very substantially.

Currently, there is nothing to stop someone applying for permission to turn a shop into a flat, and if the shop was genuinely unviable and the building suitable, this could be granted — but crucially local people are able to make representations and the Council can take a decision. Under the government’s proposals, the owner alone will decide how the building should be used.

Andrew Smith MP said: “With all the pressures in Oxford, it is especially important to get the right balance between the need for housing and the importance of protecting existing amenities, including local shops. Seeing local shops closed to make way for expensive flats will hit local communities hard, especially people who don’t have a car and need to shop locally”.

Cllr Ed Turner, Deputy Leader of Oxford City Council, who wrote an article in 2010 arguing for councils to have more powers to control change of use, said: “This takes policy in precisely the wrong direction. We should be supporting local shops, not see them face rent hikes or closure in order to make way for expensive flats”.

Cllr Bob Price, Leader of Oxford City Council, said: “Having said it wanted to ‘save the High Street’, the government risks forcing many shop-keepers out of business by making them compete with potential residential occupiers of their shops. This is total hypocrisy which, in a place like Oxford, will have a highly detrimental effect on our community”.

Labour-run Oxford City Council has responded strongly to the government’s consultation, arguing for it to abandon these plans.

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