If you’re a farmer thinking of bringing a new lease of life to your redundant agricultural buildings, then - in theory at least - now’s the time to act.
As far back as 2011, the Government was setting out its intention to provide new permitted development rights to cater for such conversions.
Since the changes came into force in April last year, many have attempted to use the new rules as a means of providing much needed rural housing without the stress, cost and time typically associated with planning applications.
As Douglas Chalmers, the CLA’s policy and public affairs director for the North, explained: “This Government has two buzz words - growth and jobs - and the change in the planning system is part of that agenda. It’s designed to take some of the hassle out of attempts by farms and rural businesses to develop a bit more.”
Legitimate restrictions and safeguards are still in place, he added, ensuring that only “bona fide” applications for agricultural buildings could get the go-ahead
“There are still checks and balances,” he said. “It just makes it a little easier.”
That, however, has not been the reality for many landowners.
According to CLA, since the new rules were introduced, only a third of applications for the conversion of farm buildings into homes have been permitted by local authorities - something Dorothy Fairburn, the organisation’s regional director for the North regards as a “scandal”.
Part of the problem, it would appear, is that when considering applications, councils may consult the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which aims to prevent isolated new dwellings in rural areas unless there are special circumstances.
What is forgotten, the CLA believes, is that the framework, and the guidance that underpins it, also suggests new housing can contribute to the sustainability of rural communities, safeguarding or improving services and facilities in nearby villages.
“Rural housing is crucial,” Mr Chalmers said. “What we’re finding is that older people are still moving to the countryside, but we are losing young working families - those in their 20s to mid-40s, who should be making money, running businesses and putting their children through schools.
“Some people are concerned about increased traffic, but if you live in a rural area, people need some way of getting backwards and forwards, so there has to be some kind of common sense approach. We want to get the country working and the rural North East has a tremendous record when it comes to economic activity.”
Indeed, the difficulties faced by applicants are augmented by the fact that the new rules are open to some degree of interpretation, with perceived impact on traffic being a major reason for refusals.
In other cases, applications have been turned down because the location of the building is considered impractical or undesirable.
In the case of Kipper Lynn Farm, in Hexham, Northumberland County Council at first rejected proposals for the conversion of an agricultural building to a detached residential dwelling, despite its sound structure, the limited demolition works involved and a contamination risk assessment that came with a clean bill of health.
One problem, the authority said, was that the proposed expanses of glazing would go beyond what was necessary.
On appeal, however, planning inspector Elaine Worthington concluded: “Whilst I accept that the proposal would significantly alter the appearance of the barn, the proposed fenestration arrangement fulfils a practical function and lends itself well to the existing form of the barn and the aim of creating a modern dwelling.”
Approving the development, she also dismissed the council’s concern over noise and odour from an adjoining cow shed.
“I am content that such a condition could be imposed to ensure the cow shed is removed prior to the proposed use taking place,” she said.
“On this basis, I see no reason why the proposal would fail to provide adequate living conditions for future occupiers and am satisfied that it aligns with the core planning principle of the Framework to secure a good standard of amenity for all existing and future occupants of land and buildings.”
The CLA has responded to the situation with a concerted effort to make Government sit up and listen to ‘real world’ accounts.
In the autumn for example, a team from the organisation met with the Government’s chief planner and officials to highlight the situation.
The representatives suggested more clarity was needed as far as aims and objectives were concerned, specifying, for example, how a balance can be struck between the new rights and the framework.
It was also agreed that a review of the changes be carried out, and, since the meeting, the CLA has been forwarding prior approval decisions - both refusals and approvals - to the Government.
The body has also written to the Planning Minister, asking him to clarify a response to a parliamentary Written Question in which he claimed the new rules were “empowering individuals”.
Arguably, though, the limited scope of permitted development rights makes them an impractical tool for efficiency in the first place.
Angus Collingwood-Cameron, lead consultant for the Northern Farmers and Landowners Group (NFLG), for example, suggested that while they represented a “step in the right direction”, it would be “fairly unlikely you’d get a situation where you would not require more than that”.
“When you take things like design and access into consideration - or you want to develop something bigger than is allowed - you could soon end up back with a full planning application to consider,” he added.
“It would be fairly unlikely you’d find something that would fit the criteria exactly.”
Of more concern to NFLG, which represents the owners and managers of approximately 225,000 acres in the North East, is that councils sharpen up their practices when it comes to planning generally.
While accepting that budget cuts, reorganisations and the lack of an updated Local Plans meant many were working in highly challenging conditions, Mr Collingwood-Cameron claimed agents and others had “little faith” in the system as it was.
Hence, he welcomed news that Northumberland’s planning department was to be reviewed, following a report by Deloitte that highlighted 21 recommendations, ranging from improving the speed at which applications were dealt with to delivering a more customer-focussed service.
“The problems have now been laid out in black and white and we can only hope that they will be effectively addressed,” he said.
“An efficient planning department is vital for the economic and environmental well-being of the county.”
Both Northumberland County Council and the Department for Communities and Local Government were contacted for comment, but had not responded by the time going to press.