Unused-farm-building(c) Tim Scrivener

Farmers seeking approval to convert agricultural buildings into houses are facing a “postcode lottery”.

Permitted development rights (PDRs) were introduced last April to allow farmers to convert unused farm buildings into dwellings without having to seek planning approval. Instead they must get prior notification for change of use.

But far from being a builders’ charter, some local authorities are yet to approve any applications.

Jenny Towill, a rural surveyor with Stags in Wellington, said: “Local authorities have been turning PDRs applications down on the grounds that the location is ‘undesirable’ or ‘impractical’ as it states in the guidance, but interpreting that to mean unsustainable.”  

“PDRs have not achieved what we thought they would in terms of freeing things up. At the moment it’s something of a postcode lottery.”
Jenny Towill, Stags

This meant local authorities were refusing conversions on the basis that they were not near local amenities, despite this often being the case in the countryside.

“PDRs have not achieved what we thought they would in terms of freeing things up. At the moment it’s something of a postcode lottery,” Mrs Towill added.

Mid-Devon District Council has approved many applications, but across the border in Taunton Deane, every application has so far been turned down.

A similar picture is emerging further north where Derby Dales District Council has recently had its first approval through, but only on appeal.

Mrs Towill said her agency was currently advising farmers to wait until more appeals had been heard in the hope that their outcomes would improve the chances of approval.

Brian Barrow, managing director at rural planning consultancy Acorus, said the company was experiencing a 40% success rate with applications, but that since the new year an increasing number of decisions were being turned over on appeal.

“There are those local authorities that are embracing it and approving most and those that are not and refusing most,” he said.

Top tips if you’re thinking of converting

Don’t be put off 

“Don’t think it’s not worth the bother if you live in an area where few or no applications have been approved, because there’s an appeal process and it will take a more national view,” said Mr Barrow.

Keep a paper trail

Common reasons for turning down PDRs

  • “Impractical” or “undesirable” location, including limited access, distance from local amenities
  • A significant reduction in how much of the original building would remain
  • The building is not an agricultural building
  • The applicant does not have an agricultural unit
  • The site was not in sole agricultural use on 20 March 2013

A significant percentage of applications are automatically approved because the local authority fails to respond within 56 days of the application. “The application becomes valid when the authority has a description, a plan and a fee,” said Mr Barrow. 

Match the rules

Equestrian units are not included in the PDRs scheme, but Mr Barrow said if a farm has horses and also makes and sells hay it qualifies as an agricultural unit, so make sure you are clear in your application.

Submit a supporting statement

Angela Cornell, associate planner with Fisher German in Ashby, Leicestershire, said: “Submit a supporting statement with your application that outlines where the building is and what services and amenities are nearby. Present your case as to why it is an acceptable location.”

Read the guidance properly

Interpretation of the guidance is vital, said Mrs Cornell. For example, there is a 450sq m limit on the size of the dwelling, which is the total floorspace, not the footprint of the house.

Thinking of selling?

If you want to sell your farm with PDRs approval, it may be best to apply for an MBa (outline approval for your conversion) rather than an MBb, which is more expensive and includes detailed drawings and elevations. “There is no point in spending money and approving a design that someone may want to change if they buy your farm,” said Mrs Towill.