Rules allowing farm buildings to be converted into homes without needing planning permission were introduced last spring. These new rules are among a range of ‘Change of Use’ permitted development (PD) rights brought in by the government with the intention to increase housing supply. This represents an exciting opportunity for many agricultural land owners looking to diversify.

Under the new rules, applicants must notify councils to decide whether prior approval is needed for proposed barn conversions. Announcing the rules, then planning minister Nick Boles said they;
"will make better use of redundant or underused agricultural buildings, increasing rural housing without building on the countryside".

However in the countryside the barn-to-home PD rights appear to have resulted in confusion and uncertainty for local authorities and applicants. Recent government figures show that councils have been refusing just over half of conversion applications with many being submitted for planning appeal, and the Planning Inspectorate (PINS) appears to have been backing many of the refusals. 

In six cases, the inspector cited location as a key reason, ruling that sites were too remote and thus unsustainable. In one ruling, the inspector justified his refusal by referring to National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) provisions that seek to preserve the beauty of the countryside and limit isolated new rural dwellings.

Twice, inspectors ruled that buildings were not in agricultural use at the appropriate time. They also twice found that works, including demolition and reconstruction, would exceed those allowed by the legislation.

Not all refusals have been upheld by the planning inspectorate, and a Devon based application in Lympstone (14/1944/PMB) was approved by the Planning Inspectorate, having been first refused by the local authority.

However the PD rights are clearly unpopular with many local authorities who hold the view that isolated rural homes are inherently unsustainable as a result of their location. Applicants have argued that this view may be a misinterpretation of the policy, as agricultural buildings are almost always located in isolated places.

New Government guidance, issued in March 2015, seeks to clarify the PD rights. This guidance includes clarification on location, and states:

“… the permitted development right does not apply a test in relation to sustainability of location. This is deliberate as the right recognises that many agricultural buildings will not be in village settlements and may not be able to rely on public transport for their daily needs.”
“…that an agricultural building is in a location where the local planning authority would not normally grant planning permission for a new dwelling is not a sufficient reason for refusing prior approval.”

The PD rights and new government guidance is extremely welcome for both applicants and local authorities. However clearly not all agricultural buildings will be suitable and any land owners who believe that they may have a suitable agricultural building should contact an appropriate architect or planning consultant for specialist advice.

Bullet Points:

- New agricultural-to-residential conversion rights were brought in April 2014
- Councils turned down half the applications under the new rights in their first six months
- The Planning Inspectorate has backed local authorities in 90 per cent of appeals
- Rural locations seen as inherently unsustainable has been the key issue
- New Government guidance, issued in March 2015, clarifies does not apply a test in relation to sustainability of location

by Jonathan Braddick - Architect Devon
Chairman of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) South West Region