Opinion- Alex Madden, partner and head of planning, Thrings Solicitors

BusinessRural Development

ON March 6, 2014, Nick Boles, the incumbent Planning Minister, issued a written Ministerial statement which would enable farmers to convert agricultural buildings into houses under changes to the planning rules.


It stated such reforms would ‘make better use of redundant or under-used agricultural buildings, increasing rural housing without building on the countryside’.


On April 6, 2014, an amendment to the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO) was enacted which gave rise to a new permitted development right under class MB (renamed class Q). This enables the change of use of an agricultural building to a residential dwelling and associated building operations.


Any proposal must satisfy certain criteria which requires the developer to seek a determination from the local planning authority (LPA) as to whether their prior approval would be required regarding its impact on various issues.


While seen by many as the quick fix to bring about an increase in the supply of housing stock in rural areas, the latest Government statistics reveal between April and June 2016, there were 698 applications under Class Q, of which 270 were refused, a refusal rate approaching 40 per cent.


This suggests LPAs are still grappling with the application of class Q, even though the planning practice guidance has been revised to give further clarity on some of the thorny issues.


The recent High Court decision of Hibbitt may further restrict what works are permitted, as Justice Green held building operations to convert an agricultural building to a dwelling house under class Q should fall short of rebuilding.


He said the concept of ‘conversion’ introduces a discrete threshold issue, such that if a development does not amount to a ‘conversion’, it fails at the first hurdle and development following a demolition is a rebuild, but where the line is drawn is a matter of planning judgement.


At the time of writing, we are awaiting the outcome of the Department for Communities and Local Government’s consultation ‘Rural Planning Review: Call for Evidence’.


In particular, it recognised ‘the need to increase housing supply is a national challenge and a particular issue in rural areas where stock is limited and house prices are relatively high’.


It went on to add ‘the Government wants to increase housing availability in rural areas, to enable villages to thrive while protecting Green Belt and countryside’ and confirmed it was ‘reviewing the current threshold for agricultural buildings to convert to residential buildings’.


A further relaxation of the rules could possibly see agricultural buildings in designated areas, such as areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and national parks which meet the qualifying criteria benefit under Class Q.


In my view, sufficient safeguards exist in the current GPDO to ensure the LPA will have the final say in terms of the design and external appearance of the building, its siting and its location, such that any fear of a proliferation of dwellings on designated sites will not come to fruition.

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