• The housing minister has announced a relaxation of planning laws, giving farmers a wider range of options for converting farm buildings into homes
  • The size limit for new agricultural buildings under permitted development rights has been increased to 1,000 square metres, allowing greater storage space for farm machinery
  • The changes are prompted by the growing need for housing in rural areas, although planning experts have called for this to be supported by a greater focus on public transport and community development

In March 2018, housing minister Dominic Raab announced changes to permitted development rights that mean a larger number of homes can be created from existing agricultural buildings on a farm.

Under the new regime, a single building can be converted into:

  • up to three larger homes over a maximum combined area of 465 square metres
  • a maximum of five smaller homes (each no larger than 100 square metres)
  • a mixture of both, with a total of no more than five homes, of which no more than three can be larger homes

Planning rules have also been changed to increase the size limit of new agricultural buildings on farms of five hectares or more under permitted development rights. The limit has been raised from 465 square metres to 1,000 square metres. The new regulations will take effect from 6 April 2018.

In addition, farmers with buildings previously used for storage and distribution will have a further year in which to benefit from the temporary permitted development right for change of use to residential, which has been extended until 10 June 2019.

Increasing the size of the building permitted under a prior approval application will take some structures out of the planning application process, making it cheaper to create larger buildings that are more in line with modern agricultural practices, says Fenella Collins, head of planning at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA).

However, the onus is on the government to overcome resistance from local authorities to the use of permitted development rights, she says. “The government’s stance has shifted to reflect the need for new housing in rural areas, and [the fact] that new houses and business development might have to take place outside the settlement boundary where there is a lack of public transport. The question is how long this will take to work down to local authority level, many of which don’t have an up-to-date local plan.”

Reaping the benefits

The change is a move in the right direction, according to Kenny Dhillon, principal planning consultant at agricultural consultancy ADAS. But the government needs to realise the rural economy has evolved, he says, and so have the needs of the communities who will be affected by these changes.

“The agricultural sector within the planning system is often misunderstood and the needs of this rural industry are not fully considered within many local authorities’ local-plan policies for supporting rural growth,” says Dhillon.

The housing minister has stated that “several hundred new homes” are created through conversions of agricultural buildings each year, although Collins says it’s unclear how many of the prior approvals granted have actually been built out.

“While we await the details, this looks to be good news for the industry, as it gives farmers another option for getting the development they need for sustainable farm businesses without the delays and costs of applying for full planning permission,” says Suzanne Clear, senior planning and rural affairs adviser at the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).

The focus on inner cities and brownfield development needs to be reviewed to shift investment into rural areas

Kenny Dhillon, principal planning consultant, ADAS

Clear also says the change to the number of homes that can be developed from an agricultural building has the potential to assist with farm succession and provide homes for rural workers.

The NFU has asked for a number of alterations to the permitted development right known as Class Q, including a change to the structural test for farm buildings. “An overtly structural approach can prevent some of the most traditional farm buildings from coming forward for reuse,” says Clear.

A limited effect?

David Haston, director of Haston Reynolds chartered surveyors, says the ability to convert farm buildings into a larger number of homes is welcome, but he doesn’t expect it to have a huge impact on the delivery of housing in rural communities.

“It will probably be helpful in cases where local plans restrict barn conversions in terms of distance from services or where the existing policy only provides for the conversion of listed buildings or buildings with heritage value,” he says. “However, modern buildings are not precluded from conversion – it just depends on their construction.”

Dhillon, though, observes that modern farm buildings are typically built from a steel structure frame with corrugated metal sheets and often a concrete apron wall, and says a location within established farmsteads would leave a lot to be desired for many future occupiers.

By just allowing more and larger conversions, the government is not tackling the principal issues of supporting development in sustainable rural locations, he says. “This can only be done by devising a substantial cultural shift in planning and revising policy which is more supportive of development in these locations. The focus on inner cities and brownfield development needs to be reviewed to shift investment into rural areas.”

Haston is also cautious about the impact of the increase in building size, suggesting that most modern machinery would fit into a space that measured 465 square metres – and that in cases where it would not, the farmer would simply apply for planning permission. “I don’t think it will encourage investment in larger machinery,” he concludes, “although it does simplify and speed up the process of erecting a larger building.”

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