Fertile Pastures: How changes to the planning system can work for you

The architectural plans for Starvehall Farm in Gloucestershire

The architectural plans for Starvehall Farm in Gloucestershire - Credit: Archant

Promotional Feature Recent changes to the English planning system can work in the favour of rural land owners. Here Mike Fox, Planning Director at Nash Partnership, explains more

Changes to the planning system present significant opportunities for rural landowners

Changes to the planning system present significant opportunities for rural landowners - Credit: Archant

Some of the changes remove the need for planning permission but are subject to a range of caveats and requirements. It is wise therefore to seek professional advice to make the most of the opportunities while avoiding potential pitfalls. Here, we discuss the changes in more detail.

It seems like not a day goes by when house prices and the lack of housing supply appear in the news. A lack of housing delivery has meant that the boon of the ongoing economic recovery is tempered by fears over rising house prices. This has increased the challenge of gaining a foothold on the property ladder for many people, particularly the young and those in rural areas.

Mike Fox, Planning Director at Nash Partnership

Mike Fox, Planning Director at Nash Partnership - Credit: Archant

In response and in the face of growing discontent, the government has been making widespread changes to the planning system to increase the supply of housing and enhance economic opportunity. These changes present significant possibilities for landowners in rural areas to make better use of existing assets and diversify their business base. The amendments will also help to address the ongoing problem of housing supply and slow economic growth. Arising from this process are both smaller-scale and short-term opportunities as well as longer-term and larger-scale opportunities to be realised by landowners. We discuss them both here.

Short-term, Smaller-scale

Recent changes to legislation allow much greater flexibility over the potential use of under-performing agricultural buildings. In 2013 a number of reforms were introduced to make it easier to change the use of agricultural buildings to a range of small-scale commercial uses, to help farmers diversity their business and stimulate the rural economy. In particular, those buildings that have lain vacant for a period of time can be converted to a range of commercial uses, subject to various conditions. This includes:

• Shops

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• Service industries (financial eg banks and professional eg estate agents)

• Cafés and restaurants

• Larger business uses (such as offices and research facilities)

• Warehousing and distribution

• Hotels and other leisure uses (such as sports facilities)

The legislation restricts such uses to less than 500m² of floorspace. Although the process is streamlined, there remains a formal application process to undertake, with the local authority’s ‘prior approval’ needed for certain matters where the overall floorspace is over 150m². This approval includes, for example, ensuring that the proposed development would not result in excessive noise or traffic generation.

Recently, in April 2014, extra legislative changes have been enacted to further bolster the rural economy, boost housing provision and enhance the provision of school places in the countryside. It is now possible to convert redundant agricultural buildings into housing and state-funded schools. In the case of the former, this can be up to 450m² of floorspace and provide up to three houses or flats. In the case of the latter, this can comprise up to 500m² altogether. There are specific criteria and exclusions, including where there is an existing agricultural tenancy and again an application process needs to be undertaken, with prior approval required for certain issues. However, unlike a planning application, the prior approval process considers only a limited number of specific potential impacts.

The above present significant opportunities for farmers with redundant agricultural buildings to make better use of their assets and in the process rejuvenate their local economies – something many rural areas have been struggling with in recent years.

Allied to these changes, the new National Planning Policy Framework brought into force also encourages the conversion of existing buildings, the diversification of agri-businesses, promotes rural tourism and the development of community facilities in the countryside. For farmers this should make it easier to convert redundant buildings to alternative uses, even where planning permission is required.

Larger-scale, Longer-term

Thinking bigger, the ongoing housing shortage and economic challenges facing rural communities are also presenting opportunities for landowners. In particular, planning authorities are struggling to quantify the amount of housing needed over the next five years and identify the sites required to meet it. This is resulting in greater demand for land beyond the boundary of existing settlements and represents an opportunity for landowners to put forward land for this purpose.

This involves promoting a site through the various stages of the development plan process - the Council’s main planning policy document. With some councils in Somerset yet to identify all of the sites needed to meet their housing requirements, this is a feasible approach for some. While a potentially lengthy and complex process, this can pay handsome rewards while providing wider community benefits for those with the patience, foresight and mind-set to see it through. Once allocated, a planning application can then be prepared for a mix of housing and/ or other uses. Given the complexity of this process it is advisable to engage the services of a planning consultant to advise.

Locations more likely to be favoured are sites which are less environmentally-sensitive, adjacent to the built up area, with good access by a range of transport. Other favourable criteria include sites where there exists an opportunity to provide facilities of benefit to the local community or support those in existence, such as a struggling school, bus service or post office. Other opportunities could also include renewable energy installations, such as wind farms or solar farms although of course, as with many things in the world of planning, these may prove to be locally-controversial.

At Nash Partnership we are starting to see farmers and other rural landowners take advantage of the more flexible planning regime offered by the latest changes. Two recent projects near to Bath involved securing permissions for the development of a farm shop, café and restaurant for a farmers’ cooperative and the construction of two live/work units adjacent to a farm on Green Belt land. This builds on our work developing planning strategies for a range of estate owners, such as The American Museum in Britain, Hartlebury Castle and the Iron Bridge Gorge. We have also given advice to a range of landowners on larger housing sites, such as Starvehall Farm in Cheltenham – as seen on the BBC TV series, The Planners.

So, all-in-all, the winds of change currently blowing through the English planning system could provide a fertile landscape for those with the appetite, vision and wherewithal to seize the initiative and put their assets to better use. If done well, such developments present the opportunity to benefit the wider community in the same way, providing a win-win situation for all.

Nash Partnership is an award-winning consultancy offering design, planning, regeneration and change delivery services. We have offices in Bath and Bristol and an enviable track record of projects delivered in the south west and nationally. Our team of over 30 includes architects, planners and design managers as well as specialists in regeneration, conservation and research geography. We are an RIBA Chartered Practice, AABC accredited and members of Low Carbon South West. We are also Chartered Town Planners and a Smarter Planning Champion.