Ministers are set to announce proposals to enable high street retail units into be converted to homes without planning permission.

Under the proposals, local planning regulations would be relaxed to allow owners to convert retail into residential property, planning minister Nick Boles will announce this week.

Councils will be asked to decide which shops should be protected as “prime retail frontage”, while those identified as “non essential” retail space can be converted into homes.

“People’s shopping habits are changing very fast as a result of the rise in internet shopping and changes in lifestyles and working patterns,” Boles told The Sunday Times.

“We need to think creatively about how to help town centres thrive in this new era. We want to encourage local councils to concentrate retail activity into the prime shopping streets in the heart of their town centres and adopt a more relaxed approach to under-used retail frontages.”

Association of Convenience Stores (ACS) public affairs director Shane Brennan gave a cautious welcome to the plans. “ACS supports making it easier to bring unused and unneeded retail space back into new uses,” he said.

“Turning some shops into houses and flats is exactly the right solution in some places. However this should never be allowed to be a free-for-all.”