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New rules on converting farm buildings to residential use

Changes to the rural planning system, making it easier to convert disused agricultural buildings into residential properties have been announced.

Demand for homes in the countryside rose rapidly during the pandemic as people looked to escape city life. Barn-type development is often the only way to achieve new rural housing due to restrictive planning policies on new buildings in the open countryside.

While industry professionals have welcomed the announcement of changes to planning rules, many say much greater detail is needed about how they will work.

This article looks at:

  • What the government has announced
  • Which rules might change?
  • Opinions from property professionals
Disused barns with planning permission or Class Q approval can be converted into residential property.

The announcement of changes

During a speech in Blackpool on 9th June, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced various new housing priorities as he attempts to stimulate house building and help first-time buyers.

Mr. Johnson said in the speech: “We will sensitively make use of existing planning rights, for example by making it easier to turn disused agricultural buildings into homes for local first-time buyers, and to support farmers in growing and diversifying their businesses.”

He also stressed that the country needs to build more homes in view of our rising population, especially focusing on brownfield sites and he wants to put more publicly owned brownfield land to use. The Prime Minister said that the government wants to build `more of the right homes in the right places.’ He said that he wanted to `unblock the right sites’ for unobtrusive developments that communities welcome, with priority being given to first-time buyers and key workers. Mr. Johnson also said that he wanted to support self-builders and the custom-build homes market.

The government wants to develop brownfield sites as a priority.

Which planning rules might change?

At present, the National Planning Policy Framework states that isolated new homes in the countryside should be avoided unless they involve the reuse of a disused or redundant building and would enhance its setting.

Permitted Development (PD) rights

Full planning permission may not be required when an applicant is seeking consent for converting an agricultural building – PD rights may apply if a scheme satisfies criteria which is outlined by Schedule 2, Part 3 Class Q of the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO).

Many property professionals think that alterations to PD rights will prove the most likely route that the government will take in changing planning rules. Class Q development rights relate to agricultural buildings and can be used to convert farm buildings into up to five residential properties on a farm unit. (Savills, 2021).

Currently, to qualify for prior approval, the building must have been in agricultural use on 20th March 2013. If it was brought into agricultural use after that date, 10 years must elapse before development under the Class Q designation may start.

An applicant must prove that the building is part of an established agricultural unit – this is most easily proved by possession of a holding number. At present, Class Q does not apply in Conservation Areas, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, or National Parks, (Planning Insight, 2021) and there is speculation that this restriction might be relaxed as part of the change in approach.

Changes to permitted development rights were introduced in March 2018, increasing the maximum number of homes that can be created from an agricultural building from three to five. Currently, schemes must comply with the following criteria, providing:

  • Up to 3 homes within a maximum of 465 square metres.
  • Up to 5 smaller homes, each no larger than 100 square metres.
  • Or a combination of the above options – no more than 5 homes with no more than 3 being larger homes. (Designing Buildings).

These restrictions on the number of houses that can be created on a unit, and the floor sizes, are also areas that the government could be considering tweaking as part of its revised strategy.

Barn conversions: strategy

Property entrepreneurs considering barn conversions will need to give careful consideration to several issues. The first step is to evaluate whether the agricultural building in question is structurally sound and expert advice may be needed to establish this, perhaps from a structural engineer.

Other matters to think about early on include assessing the number of residential units that it may be possible to create from the building – a calculation of the existing footprint will be needed to decide the best new use for the structure to take full advantage of it.

Also, consider flood risk, the amount of natural light inside the building, how much living space could be created, the external appearance, and the number of new windows and doors that it may be possible to include. Consideration should also be given to the building’s future energy efficiency as part of the scheme.

Of course, if historic buildings are being considered for development, listed building consent may be required and advice should be sought from the local planning authority.

Disused barns may have development potential.

Opinions from industry professionals

Eleni Randle of the Eldnar Consultancy said that the announced changes focus on making it easier to convert agricultural buildings such as disused barns or other buildings into residential property.

The driver behind this is stated to be to supply more homes in rural areas to enable people to stay in areas where there is generally a lack of housing supply, as well as issues about the affordability of such properties. 

Whilst there are some rural businesses and farming families who obtain consent for family members for their own occupation, to enable them to live at home or at their place of work, a large volume of conversions are sold with consent – to developers. 

As a result of this, I do not think the proposals would necessarily provide housing for rural communities as perhaps intended, as inevitably many would be sold at a price that could still prohibit younger house buyers or rural workers from purchasing. Despite this, there is potential for rural businesses to utilise the changes to obtain consents to release capital value for reinvestment, which could have differing benefits for rural communities and businesses.

Lack of detail on changes to converting agricultural buildings

We have no detail as to how this claimed easing of regulations will take place at the moment – it could be through changes within the National Planning Policy Framework (which are due imminently) and/or changes to the permitted development regime, for example, by removing or increasing current floor area restrictions or extending such rights into areas which currently don’t benefit. 

Such changes would not, however, change the starting point for determination of full applications as being the Local Plan, nor would they change the differing attitudes and approaches of councils to rural conversions across the country. 

One of the largest barriers we see to conversion projects is whether a building is structurally capable of conversion/of permanent and substantial construction i.e., is it tantamount to a new build, and the tipping point at which this becomes the case. 

With key case law such as Hibbett regularly quoted on this matter, unless the proposed changes provide specific guidance which deviates from this current approach regarding allowable works to enable such re-use, the same issues would likely present themselves again, even with the amendments seeking to make things easier. More detail is needed to clarify the situation.

Rural villages need to be vibrant, but allowing development is often contentious.

Villages need more housing to thrive

Andrew Watson, planning director for Savills, commented:

The proposals could do a lot of good in terms of boosting housing supply and helping first-time buyers, but the devil is in the detail.

Villages need new housing to stimulate the rural economy and there is speculation that the Government will make PD rights more flexible, using Class Q for changes from agricultural to residential use.

The CLA has been lobbying the government to open PD rights up so they are not precluded in Areas of Natural Beauty and so on, but it’s speculative as to how Government will do this. As Boris Johnson said just two lines about it, it’s hard to see where he’ll go with it, but as the PD route is an existing mechanism, it makes sense to use this as a platform to tweak the system.

As for brownfield sites, if a site is genuinely redundant and can’t serve a further purpose, it could be viable for development but would need proper consideration. Sustainability is the issue – if a site is remote and reliant on car access, there can be a problem.

Current planning rules protect rural areas such as the Cotswolds near Bath.

A need for more opportunities in the countryside

The CLA has welcomed the new positioning on rural development. It has long campaigned to stop the brain drain of local people moving away to towns and cities to find work and housing and wants rural communities to remain vibrant.

Alice Robinson, senior associate director in the Stamford office of Strutt & Parker commented:

Any changes to the planning regime which give farmers and landowners greater opportunities to explore ways of diversifying and make better use of their disused assets are to be welcomed, and we look forward to hearing further details of the proposals.

The Prime Minister’s pledge to make it easier for farmers and landowners to convert disused barns and buildings is a positive step forward, as it should allow the creation of new homes and jobs in rural areas, helping to keep people living and working in the countryside.

A derelict range of agricultural buildings.

Potential for changes to permitted development rights

Alice Robinson continued:

Very little detail is currently available, but the assumption is that it will involve introducing new flexibility into permitted development rights to make it easier for farmers to convert disused buildings to residential use which currently fall outside the parameters of the existing Class Q Permitted Development Rights (PDRs).

There is an inference that this may be specifically targeted to development that may meet local needs. For example, it could involve expanding the provisions to remove the restriction on converting agricultural buildings under permitted development rights in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and other designated landscapes to create more affordable housing for local people.

Other options could include increasing the maximum floor space to be converted, increasing the number of dwellings that can be created, amending the 10-year rule, or increasing the curtilage area associated with the proposed dwelling. Increasing the thresholds may help to stimulate the conversion of larger buildings, or the development of farmyard sites where there may be several disused buildings ripe for conversion. Such changes would allow more rural buildings to be converted through PDRs, which is generally a more cost-effective and quicker process than through the full planning permission route. 

At a time when building and other costs have been rising rapidly, landowners may be more inclined to try and achieve change of use through the PDRs process than through the full planning permission route, which tends to be more costly due to the potentially onerous supporting documents required to support a planning application.The Prime Minister also made reference to wanting to support farmers in growing and diversifying their business, so it will be interesting to see whether this could lead to any changes in Class R PDRs which permit the change of use of agricultural buildings to a flexible commercial use.

Next steps

With the housing crisis being accentuated by the fallout from the pandemic, the government must consider all options for getting more homes built. There are strong arguments for supporting development in the countryside to prevent villages from becoming dated and preserved in aspic, but there is inevitably strong opposition to this.

The government’s new ideas could enable more people to live in the countryside, however, as with all changes to legislation, the devil is always in the detail as noted above. Clarification of the changes to rural planning reform is awaited.

Do you think more homes should be built in the countryside?

Or do you think that rural areas must continue to be protected from development?

Either way, let us know by leaving a comment via our contacts page.

References:

Savills. 2021. How to convert a barn into a new home. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed 14th June 2022)

Planning Insight. 2021. Agricultural buildings to dwellinghouses. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed 15th June 2022)

Designing Buildings. 2021. Permitted development rights for the change of use of agricultural buildings. [Online]. Available here.  (Accessed 14th June 2022)

Self-Build. 2022. Tackling conversion projects. [Online]. Available here. (Accessed 14th June 2022)

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