Beware the Planning Officer in the Sun…
“If you don’t know who the best Rural Planning Consultant is, it probably isn’t you…” Or was that fighter pilots?
You may remember, some years ago, a gentleman bought an isolated farmstead for a bit of peace and quiet, only to find that the RAF used it as a target for training (the house having been empty for a number of years). Jets would fly over the place day and night, waves of Hercules would fly past at a level lower than
the house. It was becoming a bit of an issue.
To solve the problem, the owner painted a sign on top of his shed which invited passing fast-jet pilots to perhaps consider using alternative training areas, as identified on the shed on the right hand side of the image...
Sadly, I am not a fighter pilot… Grandad was, but it’s no longer 1930 and the RAF apparently now looks for slightly more in its candidates than being a “first class, left-handed spin-bowler” which was how he got in…
I do however know a ‘Target Rich Environment’ when I see one. (Honestly, I’m going somewhere with this I promise…), so let’s pull the ejector handle, fire through the canopy and float gently down into the farmyard where we meet our bleeding-eared client who has invited us, in between being strafed, to think about some planning opportunities on his old stone barns on the left-hand side of the image…
Once we’ve established over a cup of tea that a planning application for an anti-aircraft battery would probably just upset the Parish Council, we might consider residential use, and specifically in this instance opportunities under ‘Class Q’ or to give it its long form, The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015, Schedule 2, Part3 (changes of use), Class Q... (Try saying while delivering Barnes-Wallis’s regards to the Ruhr Valley…).
Boiled down, this means that planning permission has already been granted for an agricultural building to be converted to a house, which can then be sold on the open market, or let out as either a long-term tenancy or for holiday use to serve as a diversified income stream, but its application will be subject to Prior Approval by the Local Authority.
During the Second World War, RAF pilots blamed ‘Gremlins’ for inexplicable accidents. They were considered “tricksters, acting out their mischief for their own self-interest.” What a lot of people don’t know is that, at the cessation of hostilities, these Gremlins moved on from inconveniencing fighter pilots, to scuppering innocent members of the public when trying to get planning permission...
Development under Class Q certainly hasn’t escaped the Gremlin’s insidious influence and is subject to a number of qualifications ready to catch out the un-wary. The list is extensive, open to interpretation and includes (inter alia), transport and highways, noise, contamination risk, flood risk, design and external appearance, and whether the location or siting is 'impractical or undesirable'... If you’ve got a couple of hours, a bottle of Whisky and a cold flannel, you can fully gen-up at The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (legislation.gov.uk).
More recently the Government has provided further interpretation in their National Planning Practice Guidance which offers all the comfort of a lurking U-Boat, with a particularly mischievous and not-at-all-open-to-interpretation item being guidance on the need referenced above for Local Authorities to consider whether a development may be Impractical or Undesirable. This surfaced recently where an attempt was made by a Planning Officer (un-successfully thanks to yours truly) to provide a rather spurious reason for refusal on the basis that a rutted access track made a development impractical…
Class Q provides magnificent opportunities to put agricultural buildings back into use and to make them work for you, but its use needs to be fully considered before the expense and time is put into putting an application together.
If you’ve got a farm building which could be put to a more profitable use, have it looked at properly before taking it forward, explore the provisions of the GPDO and the NPPG in detail and get your ducks in row before making an application.
I am always happy to provide a no-obligation appraisal over the phone on whether a potential project has mileage.
Man… Build House from Shed…
It’s very tempting sometimes to leap directly from point A to point Z, without exploring the other 24 points in between.
Everybody knows and loves Class Q for example – the ability under the General Permitted Development Order ( in certain circumstances) to convert agricultural buildings to residential use. It is very easy to stand in the yard, clutching your figurative club and wearing your (thank God) figurative loincloth and immediately conclude “Man have shed.. no more need. Man get planning permission for enormous contemporary cave with Kath Kidston wallpaper… Sell to dim-witted fund manager from London tribe, me buy more swamp”
It is then equally very easy to get on the phone (or Stone Age equivalent) to your local planning consultant who might say something along the lines of; “Your swamp be in Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Council of Elders Planning Department say you no use Class Q.” At which point your planning consultant will hang up his Stone Age yogurt pot and string telephone and turn back to considering how to take down the nearest passing Woolly Mammoth…
I have a very tatty, annotated and well-thumbed copy of the National Planning Policy Framework which sits permanently on my desk. Despite only having been printed in February 2019 it looks as though it may have come from the Stone Age… The back cover has come away, the pages are dog eared, there is an inexplicable splatter of of mud across the cover and I think that I may even have taken it on holiday with me a couple of years ago.
In terms of its usefulness to the Rural Surveyor, it is right up there with John Nix’s Farm Management Pocket Book, or RG Williams’s Agricultural Valuations: A Practical Guide. To those of you who have led quieter lives, away from the screeching tyres and gunshots after midnight noir world of rural surveying and therefore have no idea what I’m talking about, these are the Booker Prize winning tomes of the rural planning consultant – Mr Nix is JK Rowling, RG Williams is the complete leatherbound Charles Dickens, and the NPPF the 81st book of the Bible…
The NPPF indicates the Government’s broad approach to planning policy and I am always shocked at how unexcited people can be by its approach to rural development – (no-one ever wants to discuss it at parties). Rural development by its very nature will usually be located in sensitive areas and will therefore be paid particular vigilance by Planning Officers , notwithstanding this the NPPF, can be hugely acquiescent to rural development opportunities. As a result, it is never far from my thoughts…
The other night, I was awoken from my slumber, sat bolt upright in bed and cried out “What about Paragraph 79(c) of the NPPF!? This paragraph is eerily absent from the mental armoury of a lot of planning consultants and discusses the development of isolated homes in the countryside as being unacceptable unless in certain circumstances, with Para 79(c) giving one of these particular circumstances as being acceptable where “the development would re-use redundant or disused buildings and enhance its immediate setting.”
Isn’t this just as significant as Class Q? Can the principle of the residential conversion of an isolated rural building be deemed acceptable on the basis of 14 words? Why does this policy not elicit the same knee-knocking, breathless discussion as its better known relative?
Unfortunately, as stated above and unlike the General Permitted Development Order, the NPPF does not grant planning permission, it simply indicates a broad approach to planning policy. It does not override adopted planning policies (the Local Development Plan), provided that they are reasonably up to date.
Let us therefore look locally to a couple of reasonably up to date development plans for examples of how this potentially pulse-racing policy might now be applied in practice. In this instance we can use two examples which are fairly close to home, both of which cover parts of the AONB where this policy might be most useful – Cotswold and Tewkesbury(1).
Tewkesbury Borough Council have helpfully provided us with Policy RES7 ‘Re-use of rural buildings for residential use,’ and state that “The re-use and conversion of redundant buildings in rural areas (the areas located outside of defined settlement boundaries) for residential use will be permitted (so far so good!) provided that;
(1)The building is of a substantial construction, is structurally sound and is capable of conversion without the need for significant new building works and/or extension
(2)Where the proposal involves a traditional building, any new works are of a scale, form, type and materials sympathetic to the character and appearance of the original building
(3)The proposal does not result in the requirement for another building to fulfil the function of the original building to be converted
(4)The proposal preserves or enhances the landscape setting of the site and respects the rural character of the area
The aim it seems of this policy, from Tewkesbury’s interpretation, is to seek to retain buildings which do not require ‘substantial new building works.’ Proposals that are tantamount to a complete re-build will not be permitted. Paragraph 79(c) therefore seems to point squarely at traditional rural buildings (note not necessarily agricultural), accepting ‘in principle’ that they are capable of conversion to residential use where this can preserve or enhance the landscape setting and respects rural character.
Cotswold too seem particularly supportive of the conversion of rural buildings through the application of their policy EC5 ‘The conversion of rural buildings to alternative uses will be permitted provided that:
(a)The building is structurally sound, suitable for and capable of conversion to the proposed use without substantial alteration, extension or rebuilding
(b)It would not cause conflict with existing farming operations, including severance or disruption to the holding that would prejudice its continued viable operation; and
(c)The development proposals are compatible with extant uses on the site and existing and planned uses in close proximity to the site.
Why oh why are we not making more use of this, particularly in our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or National Parks?
Like a couple of Gunboats lurking offshore, two now ageing Appeal Decisions may have fired warning shots in the past which unfortunately found their target(2) and which originally set the bar pretty high when the original NPPF first hove into view back in 2012, and which focussed on the need not only to preserve, but also to ‘enhance’ a rural setting – which is extremely difficult given the intrinsic beauty of our countryside, unless one could perhaps show that a particular location was somehow in need of remediating as a result of dereliction or contamination for example.
In both policy examples above however the onus now seems to have trickled down to the need to preserve rather than to enhance. It could therefore be argued that this sets the bar a little lower. Preservation could be interpreted simply as the need to have a neutral effect - the avoidance of ‘harm.’ The concept of harm is a little more tangible from a planning point of view – it could be presumed to emanate from, inter alia, driveways, car parking areas, boundary treatments and associated domestic paraphernalia which may have a detrimental, suburbanising effect on the landscape. These elements can be mitigated however through judicious design. The use of hard surfaces could be avoided in favour of more natural materials. Enclosed private areas, particularly in relation to public views from the surrounding landscape can also be avoided.
My point is that it is important to fully consider your planning options. There is a ‘golden thread’ of sustainability which runs through the NPPF, so too is a drive to locate new residential development towards existing settlements and away from ‘isolated’ locations. We are all well aware of Class Q, or development for Agricultural Workers as being avenues for rural residential development, however, Paragraph 79(c) specifically highlights isolated rural buildings as being special cases capable of conversion to alternative uses to which local planning policy has now caught up.
Therefore, don’t automatically write off rural conversions if they don’t fit the specific criteria of Class Q – look at all the aspects, consider each case on its merits and you might be sitting upon a development opportunity which could be put to work on your behalf. If you have taken advice on development in the past which may have precluded you from doing something, it may be that that advice is now out-of-date, and that potential conversion worthy of revisiting in 2021.
1 Tewkesbury Borough Council’s Local Plan is still in its Pre-Submission phase, however for this example, its policies align with the most recent incarnation of the NPPF and so give us a useful steer on how a Local Authority interprets Paragraph 79(c)
2 APP/X1545/W/15/3134801 & APP/P1615/W/18/3197669
Manage change, or be managed by it...
In setting up Wreyland Rural Planning I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to achieve.
During the 2010's I spent a lot of time working on farms in between periods of academic study and professional work. I felt that this was necessary - it is all very well having a glittering set of letters after your name, but if you've never actually done the work, how can you understand how farming works?
Three employers immediately spring to mind as having had a significant impact on my approach and what I am setting out to do.
One ran a significant livestock enterprise spread between Carmarthenshire and the Brecon Beacons. He produced really decent quality stores on the high ground, before finishing them in Carmarthenshire on salt-marshes, selling to the supermarket.
The second farmed barely marginal ground in a National Park in the southwest. An achingly beautiful landscape though with small field sizes, an abundance of granite and a significant number small tenancies with many different landlords - a really challenging and to most people 'un-economic' landscape. His approach to management was an extensive, low input - low output system focussing on solid husbandry to produce good quality store lambs that had a reputation as flying when taken off the granite and moved to finish on the lowlands. He paid his (largely domestic) landlords in kind with good management of their land.
The third was a New Zealander who had three traditional upland sheep-farms in New Zealand's Central District. He had an abundance of grass, most of which was at 45 degrees. Overnight the bottom fell out of the sheep trade, being replaced by the early 2010's with significant Chinese demand for dairy products. In response, he too changed, abandoning the farm’s three woolsheds, and turning the farm wholesale to dairy with an, at the time, very experimental once-a-day milking system.
The EU chose to subsidise farming. Mainly as a result of the Second World War and the desire for the Continent to never go hungry again, to maintain resilient food production through agriculture’s natural economic cycles, to subsidise food so that the poorest in society have access to good quality, cheap food, and more latterly to support environmental objectives. A problem however that arose from this, I believe, was that subsidy, in any industry, can dis-encourage business from adaptation. It mitigates the need to look at one’s immediate surroundings for other opportunities which may be available from which alternative sources of income can be drawn.
By 2024, depending upon how much a farmer claims under BPS, that income will be reduced by between 50% - 70%. This is a significant change – possibly one of the biggest to affect the rural sector since 1945. A gentleman, much cleverer than I, named Jeremy Moody, recently called on the need for landowners to either manage change, or be managed by it. Now is the time to assess assets, and put them to work – to build up a ‘warchest of opportunity’ so that our rural sector can remain resilient as we move into the next chapter of our national story.
Everywhere I look I see opportunities for development, opportunities that if taken advantage of can be used to provide resilience to farm incomes. Re-using a farm’s existing traditional buildings, looking at opportunities for the odd field corner which might be well located next to a village, lifting agricultural ties, establishing commercial uses in buildings which can then be let out for an income are all viable options on the farm. Local Authorities are increasingly keen on rural development with the direction of travel further supported by national policy.
Going back therefore to the original subject of this post, my aim is to work with those three farmers. Using skills drawn from a decade in farming, rural surveying and planning consultancy, to provide sound advice to forward thinking clients to increase resilience in the rural sector through the submission of robust, correctly considered planning applications that take advantage of all rural opportunities for development in order to maximise returns and do justice to our countryside.
That is what I want to achieve with this firm.