By Gillian Crump, Partner, Commercial Law

In a perfect world, you would be able to convert a commercial property from one type of business to another without having to jump through too many hoops or get tangled up in too much red tape. Unfortunately, though, this world is far from perfect, and a change of use can involve a surprising amount of paperwork. Ensuring you comply with building regulations, going through the planning permission minefield, and understanding the various building use ‘classes’ is vital.

So if you’ve just taken ownership of a new commercial property that used to be a factory, and you want to change it into an ultra-trendy ‘industrial-themed’ restaurant, what do you need to do? Indeed, what extra factors should you consider before making the purchase?

Know your ABC
Under the planning system, all buildings (both commercial and residential) fall into various ‘classes’ and are given a code that signifies their lawful uses. These are known as ‘use classes’ and are indicated by a very simple system of codes including A1 (standard shops), A3 (food and drink), B4 (special industrial), or C3 (residential housing). Every building has a designation, and it is possible in many cases to change their classification, depending on what the original use was, what you want to change it to and in some cases how your local authority views the proposed change.

Why are use classes so important?
A use class can be used to determine whether or not you can change a building’s use without the need to apply for planning permission, and learning how to navigate your way around the various classes could make turning a building that used to be a pub into a hotel or restaurant, for example, much easier.

However, some changes of use will still need permission. So you’ll need to know exactly what classification the building currently falls under, as this will help determine whether a change of use requires planning permission.

How do I find out what my building classification is?
You can find a full list of use classes on the government’s planning portal, but it may take a little bit of investigation to determine exactly which class a building falls into, especially if it has had a variety of uses over the years. You can then check your own records, including deeds, land registry records and other official documents to determine the current classification. You can also get more information from the Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1987, or contact your local council’s planning department, who may have records concerning the classification of your building.

What if the property was originally classified as residential?
If the building has a C3 (residential housing) classification, then getting it reclassified for commercial purposes may take some doing, especially if you’re right in the middle of a quiet domestic neighbourhood. You’ll need to check if the change of use requires planning permission, and if so, go through the full process of applying to the planning department for permission for change of use. They could refuse this on the grounds of the impact it may have on your neighbours, or they may find in your favour and allow you to change the use of the building, but with certain restrictions.

If your change of use is permitted under the Use Classes Order, then you won’t need to go all the way through that long, complicated planning permission route. However, it’s important to do your homework thoroughly and don’t simply assume that your change of use is on the approved list. It can be very difficult to get retrospective planning permission for a change of use application, and if it’s declined then you would have to stop using the building for the new purpose which could be expensive, particularly if the local council were to bring enforcement proceedings.

If you have to put in an application to change the use then it is likely to take at least 8 weeks for the planning permission process to go through, depending on the complexity of the project. Make sure you provide as much information as you can, and remember that the application will need to show that you’ve considered the potential impact on the local environment with regards to the increase in traffic or the requirement for public parking spaces and access for delivery vehicles. If you do need to go down this route then it’s essential that you talk to an expert in planning and property law, who will be able to take you through the process and help ensure every box is ticked to maximise the chances of your application being approved.

Is there anything else I need to think about?
Change of use doesn’t just involve letting the local planning department know what you’re doing. You’ll need to consider other issues such as Building Regulations compliance. From fire doors to flame-retardant building materials, energy efficient lighting and public facilities, you’ll need to plan very carefully, especially if the public is going to be allowed access to your building.

If food preparation is part of the plan then hygiene will be a big factor. For example, if you’re turning a building that was previously residential into a public house then you’re going to need to install catering facilities that meet all current hygiene regulations.

You’ll also need to think about the type of building insurance you have, and a huge range of other considerations such as commercial waste management, any licences needed, business rates, and even how many toilets you have on-site to conform with Health & Safety requirements.

Make sure you’ve got a commercial property legal expert in your corner from the outset so things go as smoothly as possible.

For more information about our Commercial Property services, please contact a member of the Commercial Law team on 01244 356 789 or email

Please note: This is not legal advice; it is intended to provide information of general interest about current legal issues.




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