Housing opportunity on farms as planning rules relax

Some agricultural buildings may now be converted to residential use without the need for a full planning application.

This appears to be a radical change in approach from the government and could present significant opportunities for some farmers and landowners.

It comes with publication of the government’s long-awaited changes to the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order, which allows the conversion of up to three dwellings with a maximum combined floor area of 450sq m.

The technical term for the new rules is the change of use of an agricultural building to a use falling within Class C3 (dwelling houses).

The government has effectively created a new class of permitted development (Class MB) which allows both the change of use and the operations reasonably and necessary to convert the building.

Permitted development rights are a set of planning rules which, for example, allow a small extension to a house without a full planning application. In certain circumstances they also allow new farm buildings to be put up within a set size limit.

However, there are a number of qualifying criteria within the new order (see “Qualifying criteria”, p94) and one of the most important is that buildings for conversion to dwellings should have been in agricultural use on 20 March 2013 (see p94).

In order to progress a project a landowner will need to submit a prior notification (PNA) to the local planning authority (LPA), which will have eight weeks to determine whether the proposals are acceptable or whether further information is required.

If the LPA does not respond either by refusal, approval or a request for further information within eight weeks then the PNA is deemed to be acceptable and work can begin.

The LPA will assess the proposals against several criteria:

  • Transport and highways impact of the development
  • Noise impacts of the development
  • Contamination risks on the site
  • Flooding risk of the site
  • Whether the location or siting of the building makes it otherwise impractical or undesirable for the building to change from agricultural use to dwelling houses
  • Design or external appearance of the building.

The LPA may refuse an application if it thinks the proposed development does not comply with these criteria or if the landowner has provided insufficient information.

It is therefore likely to be essential that robust supporting information is provided with an application to demonstrate that the proposed development does not conflict with any of the above.

A crucial element to get right will be ensuring the LPA does not have an opportunity to say that the building is not in agricultural use. This may sound simple, but any buildings in equestrian use or let out for storage or other non-agricultural uses will not qualify.

It may therefore be worth trying to build up some evidence of past use to satisfy the LPA, which is ironic given that many previous planning applications have centred on proving that a building is redundant for agricultural purposes.

There are a number of limitations with the new order; for example, the definition of curtilage is very restrictive, which could limit the amount of garden and parking space available with a property. There is also some debate as to how saleable a building (or buildings) will be on the open market with an approval in place. These items will need careful thought depending on landowners’ objectives.

The expansion of GPD in this way represents a significant opportunity for landowners to use certain buildings on their holdings, and it may be particularly helpful for obtaining a dwelling for a farmworker or family member where an application for an agriculturally tied dwelling has been difficult in the past.

However, there are still some unanswered questions regarding the detailed operation of the new changes and approaching a project carefully is likely to be essential to ensure opportunities are maximised and project costs don’t overrun.

The legislation seems to be drawn up in such a way that local authorities can interpret the order fairly openly and, therefore, we suspect that different authorities will take different views on its implementation.

So, the application process may not be as simple as it first appears and some negotiation and discussion with the LPA may still be required. This should address any likely issues and provide as much detail with an application as possible to improve the chance of success.

Ultimately, landowners will need to consider their objectives carefully and take advice early in the process to ensure taxation and legal issues are managed (see p96 and p98).

Proposed conversions will need to work with the rest of the holding and landowners will need to be mindful of the impact new neighbours might have on their operations.

Not only this, but a good understanding of the local market will be needed if the plan is to sell or rent out the properties. For example, broadband is an issue in many rural markets.


Qualifying criteria for conversion to residential use under GPD regulations

The site must have been used solely for an agricultural purpose, as part of an established agricultural unit on 20 March 2013 or if not in use on that date, when it was last in use; or if the site was brought into use after that date, for 10 years before the date on which development begins.

The floor area of the building (or buildings) should not be larger than 450sq m and no more than three separate dwelling houses should be developed within an established agricultural unit.

The external dimensions of the new building should not extend beyond the external dimensions of the existing building at any point.

Some building operations will be permitted, including installation or replacement of windows, doors, roofs or exterior walls and water, drainage, electricity, gas or other services being provided as reasonably necessary.

Reasonably necessary partial demolition will be allowed.

The site must not be occupied under an agricultural tenancy, unless consent of both landlord and tenant has been obtained.

Development will not be permitted in National Parks or in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, safety hazard areas, military explosive areas, on scheduled monuments or to listed buildings.

If these new PDRs are used to convert farm buildings to housing, then the farm will not be able to use other PDRs to build other agricultural buildings on the holding for 10 years, or may not have used permitted development rights to erect farm buildings in past 10 years.

LPAs may also impose conditions on the new dwellings but are not expected to use agricultural occupancy conditions. The new permitted development right only covers the change of use so building control will still need to approve construction of the new houses.

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