From expanding your dairy herd to building a cottage for your retirement, so many business plans hinge on getting the nod from the planning authorities. But be circumspect – check that what you want to do actually needs full planning permission.

Where do I start?

Agriculture benefits from concessions known as permitted development rights. As long as you stick to certain types and sizes of development, you may not need full planning permission.

Generally, these rights allow you to put up a building which is no more than 465sq m in area, although there are strict rules about how close this may be to a dwelling.

Some other activities such as laying farm tracks and concrete or hardstanding areas are also allowed under PDRs. The detail is in The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995.

But be aware: Diversification involving changing the use of land or buildings needs full planning permission and, along with dwellings, is not covered by PDRs.

Additional planning controls apply in areas like National Parks, The Broads, the New Forest, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Green Belts and Conservation Areas.

Who should I talk to first?

Tactics are all-important in the planning game, says Acorus planning consultant Brian Barrow. Although government advice urges those thinking of applying to talk to planning officers in the first instance, he says that this is often not the best move.

Leave it until you have decided exactly what you want to do, what you want to build, where and with what materials. Then talk to planners from a position of knowledge, says Mr Barrow.

“Sometimes people talk to planning officers because they are not sure what may be acceptable and this can result in advice to go for their full scheme all at once, or they are put off by being told that they would not get permission for what they are proposing.” Either response could lead them down the wrong path, he warns.

There may be another approach. For example, buildings allowed under PDRs can be helpful in establishing a case for other development.

“A smaller development can often open the door to something larger later, rather than going in all guns blazing at first for the full scheme.

“Take the example of relocating a farmstead. The authority may not be keen on the development all in one go, but if you establish agricultural buildings on a greenfield site within permitted development rules, this may make the case for more buildings and a dwelling on that site easier to accept.”

Equally, being told informally by a planning officer that “you’ll never get permission for that”, may simply be a question of location or access. A different location on the farm could have a much better chance. Local and national policy is likely to influence what your authority will accept. You need to understand what those policies say and mean in your area, says Mr Barrow.

Some advisers deliberately include in a planning application elements which they know will be controversial, to reduce the impact of what they actually want to get through, knowing that the controversial items will be rejected, or reduced in size or impact by the authority. However, this can be a high-risk strategy, warn advisors.

How do I know what to include with my application?

It’s no longer a case of simply filling in the forms and paying the fee. An application needs a lot more support and background work than in the past, says Mr Barrow.

“You need to be saying right from the start why you are proposing this development at this site and how it meets policy x, y or z. There is a presumption in favour of development in the countryside, especially for conversion and change of use of existing buildings. Sport and recreational uses are particularly favoured, but new industrial buildings, offices and housing are frowned upon.

“The authority will consider the visual and landscape impact, highways and access, traffic movements before and after the development, noise and pollution.

“You need to get your answers ready on all of this before they come and ask. In most cases you will need a design and access statement. We also supply many more protected species surveys than 12 months ago.”

An Environmental Impact Assessment may also be requested. EIA is a formal procedure to ensure that the potential effects of development on the environment are considered in the planning process. These are compulsory for some intensive livestock units.

Key components of a planning application are:

  • Application form
  • Plans and elevation drawings
  • Location plan showing the extent of the development and other land you own
  • Certificate of ownership (a signed declaration)
  • Design and access statement (except for pure change-of-use applications)
  • Fees

How much will it cost me?

Planning fees went up this month for first time in several years. They start at £70 but can go into tens of thousands for major developments such as a large broiler unit or grain store. There may be consultants’ fees on top of this and an advocate’s fee if it goes to public inquiry.

What to avoid

Talking to planners too early. Better to do your homework thoroughly, find out about local plans, attend planning committee meetings, talk to a consultant, says Mr Barrow.

Avoid a lack of detail in applications – the background to many farm developments needs explanation. People often believe they have PDRs, but they may not and, even if they do, some works need prior approval.

Changes made to developments after planning permission is granted can render that development illegal. And applications most likely to be controversial are dwellings (including rural barn conversions) and anything involving intensive livestock. Also, beware of build-schemes which you are told do not need planning permission, or are within PDRs – claims are not always correct

Successful planning permission can also have a significant tax impact. Look out for implications for inheritance tax, capital gains tax, income tax and VAT and lost relief, so check the tax consequences carefully before you go ahead. Planning permission can enhance values before work begins and this will often have tax consequences too.

My application was refused, what do I do now?

You have three options:

  • Give up
  • Make changes to overcome problems planning authority has with the application
  • Take it to appeal – you have six months from the date of the decision, or date by which it should have been made, to do this.

Appeals can be heard by written representation, informal hearing or public inquiry.

“The success rate is between 35 and 45% overall, with results for applicants at informal hearing slightly better than by written representation and public inquiry tending to be slightly better than informal hearing,” says Mr Barrow. However, the costs for a public inquiry will be much higher because you may need an advocate and planning advisor.

The applicant can choose either written representation or informal hearing, but this choice can be overridden. A public inquiry can be called by the local authority or the planning inspectorate.

Find out more

The planning process

  • Application forms must be completed and fee paid. Drawings are usually needed and a site plan to show project location. Other information may be included or requested by the authority
  • Local authority registers application once it has all information it needs
  • Then consultation of four to five weeks so anyone can comment. Application will be sent routinely to Highways Authority, local district and parish councils. Neighbours directly affected get individual letters
  • Most local authorities put applications and comments on their websites
  • Notice is posted at proposed site
  • Once consultation period ends, local authority is under pressure to meet eight week target from date of registration for dealing with a certain percentage of applications. For major developments, 13 weeks
  • Applications are decided by delegated planning officers or by meeting of planning committee this varies between authorities
  • If by planning committee, you will get chance to address the committee but you won’t be given long, so have arguments ready
  • If by delegated powers things can happen very quickly. It’s worth chasing your application to see what’s happening and if you can provide further information, says Mr Barrow, but it’s not always easy to get hold of the right person to ask if they have any queries
  • You will receive a decision notice
  • If permission is given it will almost certainly come with conditions. These must be met. For example, the authority may want to see details of materials supplied and approve these in writing before work begins
  • If permission refused, reasons will usually be given in brief terms, get hold of planning officer’s report to understand reasons fully

Case Study – Building in the Green Belt

John Whitby

Building in London’s Green Belt presents more challenges than many other farm projects. The Whitby family’s woodchip store at Rowley Farm, Slough, was completed in June last year and opened in November.

It takes in virgin waste wood for biofuel and acts as a transfer station for such products, much of which would otherwise be burned or go to landfill. Wood is also chipped in the building.

The planning process took five months. The Whitbys used Acorus for advice on the application, which was decided at county council level.

The new storage building was therefore principally for non-agricultural use, and was contrary to normal Green Belt policy. Understanding that policy was very important in preparing the application and for the hearing, says John Whitby (pictured), who farms in partnership with his brother Stephen and sister-in-law Lilles. They run a 180-cow Jersey herd and a contract arable operation from the 250ha (617-acre) unit.

Lobbying was also a crucial part of the process. As well as talking to planning officers to explain what was proposed, Mr Whitby lobbied local and county councillors for support. “Some were very supportive but others were initially sceptical,” he says.

“It’s a relatively new idea to store woodchip on farm, but storing local wood for local end use is a really strong part of the renewable argument. Further, it fits neatly with the farm business as a diversification where we can use some of our existing machinery. It was these arguments that eventually held sway over adopted Green Belt Policy.

Case study – Greenfield site with road frontage

Lifton Strawb Fields

Jo Mounce’s retail business has gone from a vegetable barrow to a farm shop and restaurant in just eight years. Lifton Strawberry Fields Farm Shop (pictured) now employs 24 full-time staff as well as extras at weekends.

She was clear about her site, a greenfield plot with road frontage on the approach to Lifton village, and was lucky to have supportive planning officers. But in 2002, shortly after submitting her planning application for a horticultural store with a small shop front and corner café facilities, foot-and-mouth hit and movement restrictions stopped everything.

This brought an unexpected benefit in that planning policy for farm diversification was relaxed to give businesses a chance to recover.

Jo got permission for the building but it came with a heavy restriction that she could only sell what was grown on the farm. This made catering in the café particularly difficult. She went back twice to battle for more relaxed conditions so that now she can bring in up to 50% from other producers in Devon and Cornwall and she has a 10% leeway for produce from outside the local area.

Jo Mounce’s tips on the planning process

  • Say what you want to do and then do it planners aren’t silly so don’t try to pull the wool over their eyes
  • Be clear and well prepared in your arguments, especially when addressing the committee you won’t be given long to do this
  • Don’t try and hurry planners, you can’t
  • Be prepared for highways issues to take longer than you want them to
  • Don’t be greedy – start small, build in keeping with local area
  • Encourage support from your local council, make time to explain your vision
  • Be available personally for meetings and to respond to queries
  • Permission for signs is a nightmare and very frustrating