Earlier this year, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) issued new planning practice guidance after figures revealed that more than half of applications to use eased rules to convert farm buildings into homes were being refused.
In the final quarter of 2014 – before the guidance was issued – 58 per cent of barn conversion prior approval applications submitted under the permitted development right were thrown out by local authorities. But official figures just published by the department show that the refusal rate has dipped sharply since the publication of the guidance in March, with 40 per cent of prior approval applications refused in the second quarter of 2015.
An analysis of the DCLG’s latest figures by Planning reveals wide differences in refusal rates between local planning authorities. According to the analysis, some authorities have refused a high proportion of barn conversion applications, such as Derbyshire Dales District Council, which refused 94 per cent of such applications between April 2014 and June 2015, and Maldon District Council, which blocked 89 per cent over the same period (see infographic).
But other authorities have been considerably less hostile, according to Planning’s analysis. These include South Oxfordshire District Council, which refused no prior approval applications over the same timeframe, and Suffolk Coastal District Council and the Isle of Wight Council, which refused 7.1 per cent and 7.7 per cent respectively.
Planning’s analysis reveals that the agricultural-to-residential prior approval application refusal rate – 50.8 per cent over the period April 2014 to June 2015 – remains substantially higher than the refusal rates for other types of permitted development, including larger household extensions (15.6 per cent), office-to-residential (18.7 per cent) and retail-to-residential (25.7 per cent).
But Fenella Collins, head of planning at lobby group the Country Land and Business Association, said a "shift" had occurred since the guidance was published in March (Planning, 13 March, p7). "We are getting less demand for advice on this," she said. "Things are moving in the right direction."
Under the permitted development right, introduced in early 2014, councils must decide whether prior approval is needed for the transport, highways and noise impacts of proposed agricultural conversions. Local planning authorities must also consider whether there is a risk of contamination or flooding, and if the site makes conversion "otherwise impractical or undesirable".
Duncan Hartley, director of planning at consultancy Rural Solutions, said the fall in the refusal rate reflected councils’ "positive response" to the updated guidance. "We’ve seen a change in approach from local authorities," he said. He added that it provides councils with "strong guidance" that the permitted development right does not apply a test in relation to sustainability of location.
Hartley said, before the new guidance was introduced, the most prevalent reason for refusing permission for proposed conversions had been the location of the building, with local planning authorities arguing in such instances that sites were too isolated, and therefore unsustainable. But the revised practice guidance states that, should an agricultural building be in a location "where the local authority would not normally grant permission for a new dwelling", this is not a "sufficient reason for refusing prior approval".
Steve Briggs, planning director at consultancy Savills, said the government’s statement had made a "huge difference". Now, "in general, we are finding that we are not losing many cases", he said. According to Briggs, most reasons for refusal now cite issues related to the quality of the building and its structure and not issues of remoteness. He said this approach is supported by the wording of the updated guidance, which states that buildings must be "structurally strong enough to take the loading that comes with the external works to provide for residential use" in order to qualify for the permitted development right.