Editor's pick: Soap production ruled out as agricultural activity

An inspector has upheld an enforcement notice requiring the removal of a timber-framed barn in the Surrey green belt, after deciding that soap preparation does not constitute an agricultural activity.

The majority of the 17ha holding was used for arable purposes and had been purchased by the appellant in 2010. He then demolished a poultry building and erected the 330m2 barn, asserting that it was not inappropriate because it involved a replacement building that was not materially larger than its predecessor. In addition, since it would be used for harvesting lavender, he argued that it was reasonably necessary for the purposes of agriculture.

Although the two buildings were of similar size, the inspector found that the oak-framed barn was materially different from the former poultry shed due to its form, bulk and design. Two agricultural consultants produced evidence seeking to demonstrate that its size was reasonably necessary for producing lavender, which would be cropped and then hung to produce lavender oil and soap.

While accepting that production of oil was akin to producing wine, cider or apple juice and thus incidental to the agricultural use of growing the crop, the inspector was less convinced about the preparation of soap. In his view, this went beyond what could be regarded as an "ordinary and reasonable" agricultural practice and was more akin to an industrial or manufacturing process. Since the building would be used for a mixture of purposes, he decided that it did not represent an appropriate form of development and harmed the openness of the green belt.

In deciding that planning permission for retention of the building should not be granted, the inspector placed little weight on the appellant’s alleged fallback position. The appellant claimed that a larger, modern steel-framed building could be erected under permitted development rights. Citing the judgement in Gamborne v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government [2014], the inspector determined that a two-staged approach is required.

The first stage was to assess whether there a greater than theoretical possibility that the development would occur, he reasoned. If so, it then became a matter for the decision-maker to determine what weight should be attached to it. In his opinion, the availability of permitted development rights, under which the council could comment on the acceptability of any siting and design, did not justify retaining a large barn that required permission. Removing part of the barn to remedy the harm would not overcome its conflict with green belt policy, he concluded.

Inspector: Nigel Burrows; Hearing

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