Planning logjam holding back farm business success

Farmers trying to build resilience into their businesses are being held back by an overcomplicated approach to planning and the government’s slow review of legislation, say advisers.

Agricultural policy uncertainty post-2020 combined with low commodity prices and threats from climate change, have increased farmers’ sense of urgency on developments, such as on-farm dwellings, farm shops and reservoirs.

But three government reviews of how to simplify planning regulations are waiting to be concluded.

In the meantime, some local authorities (LAs) are demanding more surveys and evidence from applicants, making the process too expensive for many businesses.

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“Farmers and landowners are continuing to fight the planning system, which is still pretty obstructive, burdensome and [expensive],” said Fenella Collins, head of planning at the CLA.

Rural Planning Review

The Rural Planning Review, to which Ms Collins submitted detailed suggestions for how to simplify rural planning, was launched a year ago.

But Defra and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) are still assessing the review’s evidence.

“Nothing’s been delivered – is it worth the paper it’s written on?” said Ms Collins, who blamed the delay in Westminster on a logjam caused by the EU referendum result and a change in government.

Increased costs

Leo Hickish, partner at Batcheller Monkhouse, estimated between 20-30% of small development schemes on farms were being stopped in their tracks due to increased planning costs.

An application two or three years ago which would have cost £2,000-£3,000 was now sometimes costing upwards of £10,000, said Mr Hickish.

This was because some case officers were demanding additional evidence (such as a second environmental assessment) often after applications had gone in, rather than using their own judgement to make decisions and balance the needs of the farmer, local economy and environment, he said.

“It’s reached a crisis point,” said Mr Hickish.

“Many farmers are not in a position to invest that level of capital on a purely speculative basis. The whole system is spiralling out of control.”

With uncertainty about farming support post-2020, alarm bells were ringing for many farmers who wanted to secure non-agricultural income through the conversion of farm buildings, he said.

Attitude change

New legislation was not what was needed, said Mr Hickish. Instead, a change in attitude of LAs and for case officers to use their professional judgement more, was key.

Case officers’ different interpretation of the rules were causing a postcode lottery, added his colleague Kirsty Castle, head of planning in Tumbridge Wells.

Simplified legislation

This was despite the government having issued further guidance for LAs earlier this year to tackle the issue.

But simplified legislation could give farmers greater certainty that their developments would go ahead, said the NFU’s senior planning adviser, Suzanne Clear.

When farmers need to innovate, incomes are falling and [businesses] need to farm more efficiently, you need the planning system to support you Suzanne Clear, NFU

This extra confidence was vital, particularly at the moment with the uncertainty of low prices and Brexit, she said.

“When farmers need to innovate, incomes are falling and [businesses] need to farm more efficiently, you need the planning system to support you,” said Ms Clear.

Planning rules also needed to move with the times so farmers could more easily meet modern farming standards, including those set by retailers, such as animal welfare requirements, she said.

Defra and DCLG said they were undertaking a thorough call for evidence and were “determined to help rural economies thrive”.

Further details of the review would be published soon, they added.