A major upgrade to the planning law came into force recently with the aim of making it much easier to covert agricultural buildings – namely barns – into homes.
The idea is to allow rural communities greater flexibility in meeting local housing needs when opportunities for new-build family homes are often limited, particularly in isolated areas.
The use of Permitted Development Rights (PDR) also provides a new lease of life for barns, byres and sheds left largely redundant by changes in modern farming practices.
An increasing use of big bales and the shift towards large stock sheds has left many traditional buildings with an uncertain future.
The introduction of PDR made it possible for the first time to convert agricultural buildings into homes without having to seek planning permission – although there are caveats.
The more relaxed rules provide an opportunity to supply much-needed homes by converting buildings on agricultural land rather than building from scratch, an option largely ruled out by strict planning controls.
PDR also allows agricultural buildings to be converted to shops, cafes, businesses, hotels and leisure facilities as well as state-funded schools or registered nurseries.
The number of conversions of barns and agricultural buildings has been rising steadily since PDR was first introduced in 2014.
Further amendments were introduced this April, which allows for up to five smaller homes to be created from an existing agricultural building rather than the previous maximum of three.
It has speeded up the development process and cut the cost and complexity of the planning procedure - as it falls outside the remit of the local plan, sustainability assessments and the vagaries of planning committees.
PDR also makes it more financially beneficial for landowners to convert barns and creates a more attractive prospect for smaller developers.
To qualify, the building must have been in sole agricultural use, must have existed since March 2013 and the total floor space to be converted cannot exceed 465m2.
It allows for any reasonable building work to convert a barn into a house within the envelope of the structure and for partial demolition and rebuilding. This includes installing or replacing doors, windows, roofs, exterior walls and supplying drainage and services.
However, before starting any work, the convertor must apply to the local planning authority for prior approval.
The council will consider the impact of the conversion against a number of criteria including transport, noise, contamination, flood risk and whether the location makes it impractical or undesirable for conversion.
It must also decide whether it needs to have prior approval on the building’s design and outside appearance.
As a result, the local authority still has the power to veto the work.
PDR doesn’t apply to sites within National Parks, Conservation Areas, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and listed buildings - although the Government expects planning authorities to adopt a positive approach by balancing the needs of protecting the landscape and the area’s social and economic wellbeing.
The CLA, which represents landowners, farmers and rural businesses has already hailed PDR as a great success and has welcomed the extension to the policy.
It says that it allows farmers to cope with the demands of modern farming and create more profitable businesses.
However, such developments are not subject to Community Infrastructure Levies or Section 106 payments – charges or measures to reduce the development’s impact on the local community.
The Local Government Association views this as a loophole which allows such developments to avoid the responsibility of contributing towards affordable housing or investing in infrastructure, such as roads, schools and health services.
The vast majority of conversions of agricultural buildings are modest in scale and represent a real opportunity to create homes in areas where supply is vastly outstripped by demand.
With a sympathetic approach to conversion, the policy also helps preserve the traditional rural landscape whilst providing family homes or businesses to maintain an area’s viability and vitality.
Anything which helps rural areas fight back against a general trend of depopulation and decline in services must be viewed as a positive move.
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