Five concerns for countryside planning

The most common reason that appeals against refusals of barn conversions under permitted development rights are dismissed, changing criteria for defining an 'essential' rural worker's dwelling and landowners' wishlists for further planning changes featured prominently in a conference held last week in the Oxfordshire countryside.

Barn conversion: guidance now stricter on changes allowed to enable residential use of agricultural buildings (Picture credit: Kernon Countryside Consultants Limited)
Barn conversion: guidance now stricter on changes allowed to enable residential use of agricultural buildings (Picture credit: Kernon Countryside Consultants Limited)

Here are some of the key themes that emerged from the event, staged by the British Institute of Agricultural Consultants’ rural planning group and supported by Planning, Thrings Solicitors and Farmers Weekly.

1 The necessity for significant structural change has become the most common reason for appeals against refusals of agricultural-to-residential conversions to be rejected. An amendment to Planning Practice Guidance (PPG) in March said it was "not the intention" for the new permitted development right for conversions of barns into housing "to include the construction of new structural elements for the building". Since then, James Whilding of consultancy Acorus Rural Property Services told delegates, such structural change had become the most commonly cited cause in dismissing appeals against refusals of prior approval to convert barns under the right.

He said that 82 per cent of such appeals decided since the PPG revision in which structural change had been raised had been refusals. If the government wants to improve rural supply, "it needs to throw out that paragraph" of the PPG, he said.

2 Rural landowners are not satisfied by the recent increase in the proportion of applications for agricultural-to-residential conversions under permitted development rights approved by councils. Earlier this month, Planning reported that the proportion of barn conversion prior approval applications submitted under the new permitted development right rejected by planning authorities had dropped from 58 to 40 per cent between the final quarter of 2014 and the second quarter of 2015 (Planning, 9 October, p9). This change is widely attributed to the publication of the new PPG in March.

However, in Whilding’s words, there is a "massive variation" in the refusal rate between different councils. Membership organisation the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents rural land and business owners, successfully lobbied the government to extend the right in 2013 and issue the guidance this year. It intends to "continue to push" until refusal rates drop further, its president Henry Robinson told delegates.

3 Rural business advisers see the government’s review of rural planning as an opportunity to campaign for further extension of permitted development rights for agricultural buildings. Published in August, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ plan for boosting rural productivity promised to set out measures for how the planning system could be changed to help rural businesses by next year. Whilding reported "indications" that the government was "looking positively" at proposals to relax the rule stipulating that you can’t create any more than three homes, or total housing floorspace of more than 450 square metres, through conversion of agricultural buildings on a single farm.

Robinson said the CLA would lobby to "unlock the potential economic benefits within the green belt in a sustainable way" and for a planning system that would support landowners in national parks and other protected spaces "in realising the potential economic benefits" needed to maintain high environmental management standards. Robinson also called for compulsory "biodiversity offsetting", meaning that "if you are developing land that has an environmental good or benefit, and you stand to make a profit from it, then you should pay to ensure that good is protected".

4 It’s becoming easier to get permission for dwellings on the grounds that they are essential for rural workers. Hurdles that applicants previously had to vault to win permission for a permanent dwelling on the basis that it would meet an essential need for a rural worker have become less challenging since Planning Policy Statement 7 (PPS7) was replaced by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), said Tony Kernon of Kernon Countryside Consultants. But the obstacles have not disappeared completely.

As an example, he cited the requirement imposed by PPS7 that applicants for permanent dwellings on essential worker grounds needed to be able to prove that the staff concerned would be employed by an economically sustainable enterprise. There is no specific mention of this so-called "financial test" for essential rural workers homes in the NPPF, said Kernon. "But it’s not gone," he said. Despite "too many variable rulings" on the issue by the courts and the Planning Inspectorate, the majority of decision-makers still seem to be considering the financial viability of enterprises for which applicants were claiming that a permanent worker’s dwelling would be essential. However, inspectors were taking a "more rounded" approach to the issue than they had in the past, he said. No longer would an inspector be likely to reject an essential worker’s dwelling on an established farm, he said, simply because the particular activity in which the worker was employed was a new one which could not demonstrate a long track record of economic sustainability.

5 It’s also becoming easier to win permission for essential rural worker homes on holdings that already have housing on them. Decision-makers have also always assessed whether the need for a supposedly essential dwelling could be met by existing housing. But since the NPPF’s publication, said Kernon, they have seemed more relaxed on the issue. "Inspectors are getting more generous about allowing new dwellings where there are existing homes on a holding," he said.

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