Planning activity on farms has accelerated recently, mostly through housing projects, diversifications and business expansion. Barry Davies, Tony Kernon and Sam Franklin of the British Institute of Agricultural Consultants’ rural planning sector advise on how ensure things run smoothly.
There is much planning policy support for farm diversification in key government documents.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) (2012) states that “local plans should promote the development and diversification of agricultural and other land-based rural businesses”.
All applications should be dealt with on their individual merits but the starting point when considering farm development and diversification is that the proposal, if sensible and well made, should get consent.
Is planning permission needed?
Many uses of land and buildings may be undertaken for relatively short periods of time (usually up to 14 or 28 days a year) under Permitted Development Rights (PDRs).
Activities such as clay pigeon shooting, car boot sales and motorbike trialling come into this category.
Tips for planning success
- The planning officer is a professional, so treat him or her as such. Be calm and unemotional – threats, pressure and heavy-handedness generally have the opposite effect to that intended.
- Be conservative with the project size and don’t talk up the figures.
- Try not to “urbanise” drawings. Sometimes plans done on a computer have a very clinical look and give the planning officer the wrong impression.
- Social, economic and environmental benefits – for example if your development is tourism-related – emphasise how existing local businesses will gain.
- Demonstrate the need for your project in the local area. The financial gain/added value to the existing farming enterprise is a “material consideration”, which in planning terms means it must be taken into account when the authority decides the application.
- Identify how staff for your project can be recruited locally. Councils are very keen on rural businesses that employ locals, particularly young people who can be employed under an apprenticeship scheme.
- Always ask for written confirmation of any planning officer opinion or advice, and whether they are recommending approval of your application.
Also, if some activities are ancillary to the major use of the land or site (normally agricultural) then they may be considered ancillary or “de minimis” and not require planning permission.
Activities such as a small farm shop selling goods produced on the holding or occasional educational visits are likely to come into this category.
Certain developments on farms larger than 5ha can also be carried out under PDRs, which means they do not need to go through the full planning process.
This allows construction of agricultural buildings up to a maximum 465sq m and no closer than 25m to a trunk or classified road, although other conditions apply.
There have been many changes in England over the past two years and minor developments, such as the change of use of farm buildings to commercial and residential uses, are now permitted development.
The rules are set out in the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO) 2015, part 3 class R.
This allows the change from agricultural to a flexible range of commercial uses including shops, offices, business, hotels and storage.
For proposals smaller than 150sq m, the local authority simply needs to be informed that the use is changing, and for areas above that and up to 500sq m there is a prior notification scheme .
Residential change of use through PDRs comes under the GPDO class Q – in this instance a prior notification form must be submitted to the local planning authority (LPA), which has 56 days to respond.
The principal issues are that the building must be part of an agricultural holding, the maximum floor space area is 450sq m and the cumulative number of dwellings should be no more than three.
The local authority can ask for further information regarding transport and highways, noise, contamination and flood risk.
However if no such request is made and no site visit is made by the authority before the 56-day period ends, it can be assumed that the development is permitted.
If your proposed development is not allowed under PDRs, the chances are your project will need planning permission.
What are the main issues to be aware of before submitting a planning application?
Previous planning history – Research the farm’s planning record to clarify whether there have been any refusals or enforcement notices (which may still be live), as these may affect an application.
Highways and transport – Most rural planning applications that fail do so because they fall foul of the increased traffic argument.
Any planning application that is likely to increase traffic flow by more than 5% will automatically involve the Highways Agency (if it is accessing on to a trunk road) or County Highways (if it is not).
Check that access is safe for the speed and type of traffic that uses the road. Take measurements of the visibility sight line from a point 2.4m back from the edge of the carriageway and check visibility left and right.
Pre-consultation discussions – Before submitting an application, have discussions with the three statutory consultees: the local parish council, the Highways Authority and the Environment Agency.
Many parish councils will now prepare their own neighbourhood development plan, which will involve their aspirations for the village, including community and residential development.
Consult with the local ward/district councillor – All are heavily encouraged by central government to engage early with the applicant and give their views on projects.
Special designated land areas – Check whether your farm is in a green belt, area of outstanding natural beauty, site of special scientific interest or conservation area.
If so, any development will need a specialist report and possibly a visual impact assessment.
Be aware of and cater for protected species – Developments, including those under PDRs, must not harm any protected species. You will need to be aware of the potential for that and may be required to commission species surveys.
Commercial viability should underpin all decisions – Take a realistic view on the market potential for your project now and over the next 20 years.
If it is a leisure and tourism venture, where are the major population areas? Are they within an hour’s driving distance?
What is the competition in the local area? Sustainability is one of the criteria planners must assess and it can have a severe impact on your project.
Is a rural planning specialist needed?
This depends on the people involved as well as the nature of the project. Provided it is a fairly straightforward plan for a change of use from an agricultural building to a workshop or offices (B1 use) it should not be too contentious.
However for a change of use to storage and distribution (B8), which can involve a lot of HGV traffic, it may be appropriate to call in a consultant and a highways engineer.
If you are employing a planning consultant to handle the application, make sure they have expertise in rural planning and will manage the project for you, dealing with the necessary consultations involving highways, Environment Agency and ecology.
Ask for testimonials from previous customers and visit projects they have handled.
Should the LPA be asked for pre-application advice?
Yes, for small schemes it is possible to meet with the duty planning officer at the local authority planning office to get advice before submitting an application.
Find out more
BIAC’s Rural Planning Conference takes place at the Williams Conference Centre, Wantage OX12 0DQ on Thursday 8 October 2015.
Speakers will cover a wide range of rural planning issues.
For details and booking contact BIAC on 01275 375 559 or the BIAC’s website.
For larger projects a pre-application letter requesting advice should get a full response in relation to planning policy, highways, environment and other important aspects that should be covered within the application.
However, local authorities vary in their approach to this type of advice.
Make sure you ask them to explain what planning policies will be relevant to your application and why.
Also make it clear that you want specific guidance on the likely issues and not simply a referral to policies on a website.
Many LPAs charge for pre-application advice and a the planning officer’s letter is likely to state: “This is an informal officer’s opinion based only on the information provided and not that of the local authority.”
How should a planning application be submitted?
Include plans, a design and access/planning statement and any specific specialist reports including flood risk assessment, environmental surveys, landscape impact assessment, highways or transportation assessment, along with the planning fee.
The application can be delivered by hand (get a receipt), submitted by post (get proof of posting) to the LPA or through the planning portal online.
What happens once the application has gone in?
The application should be validated by letter from the LPA within six to eight weeks of submission. During this period the LPA may ask for more details or clarification. The validation date is important because other things flow from it.
Once validated, it will appear on the LPA website and neighbours potentially affected will be notified of the application in writing.
Applications are handled either under delegated powers, which means that the planning officers decide whether permission is granted (the majority are dealt with in this way) or submitted to a full planning committee hearing.
Any objections should be addressed with the planning officer as quickly as possible.
Ascertain whether the application will still be dealt with the under delegated powers or if it will be reported to a planning committee; it is useful to involve your local ward or district councillor in these discussions.
If the application is submitted to the planning committee (usually in the evening) the applicant or the agent has three minutes to present the case to the committee. Never miss the opportunity to attend the committee, a non-appearance is often taken as a sign of disrespect.
If the application is recommended for refusal on delegated powers and the planning officer’s view cannot be changed, you can either withdraw the application or request that your ward councillor “calls in” the application to the planning committee.
If the latter, you need to lobby the councillors on that committee.
If it is considered at an early stage that the application is to be contentious it is preferable to ask immediately that your ward or district councillor calls it in, but only in the event of the officer’s recommendation of refusal.
If the application is recommended for approval under delegated powers, great. But it is important then to discuss with the planning officer what conditions are proposed and for you to consider whether they are reasonable and necessary for the development.
Beware onerous planning conditions that can severely restrict the business. For example, personalised permission attached to a single, named individual, may affect the funding a bank is willing to offer.
The other type of condition is likely to attach to the construction of the project – for example landscaping requirements, timing of the work and traffic flow restrictions.
Conditions must be discussed with the applicant. This usually takes place at the recommendation stage and if they seem too onerous, consider asking your ward councillor to call the application into committee for a full planning hearing.
It is essential to negotiate at this stage and withdraw the application if the conditions proposed are too severe.
If not, accept them, get the stamp of planning condition then ensure you discharge all the planning conditions that have a specific time limit attached – for example, improvement of the farm access within three months.
If the application is refused by the planning committee you may choose to appeal, which can be very expensive.
You have a six-month period to petition the secretary of state by written representation, a local hearing or a public inquiry.
Be realistic about your chances of success and take advice early on.