CLA Comment: Progress on changes to planning process has been slow so far

Ben Underwood, regional director of the Country Land & Business Association.

Ben Underwood, regional director of the Country Land & Business Association. - Credit: Archant

Farmers and landowners across the region are enduring confusing, slow and obstructive planning rules – more than a year after the Government pledged to update them.

Ministers committed to delivering a “10-point plan for boosting productivity in rural areas”, pledging to review planning rules holding back communities, jobs and growth, in August 2015. This was followed by a consultation on reforms in February of this year, but rural communities have seen no outcomes, writes CLA East Regional Director Ben Underwood.

As a result, members attempting to invest in and diversify their businesses across our countryside are being held back by the delays, inefficiencies and inflexibilities of the planning system,

Modern farming’s ever-changing economic picture has brought the viability of diversification projects as additional income streams firmly into the spotlight.

There is a need to increase productivity and resilience, which could be through building new on-farm infrastructure or by creating alternative income streams through housing, leisure or retail, which can help make the core farming business more secure.

The Farm Business Survey showed that 61% of all farm businesses had some form of diversified enterprise in 2014–15, and almost 40% of these said income from the diversification accounted for at least a quarter of total farm business income.

As well as providing an opportunity to create another income stream and build resilience into the business, farm diversification activities can also provide benefits for the wider community by providing additional job opportunities, helping to boost the rural economy.

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The introduction of permitted development rights (PDR) in 2013 was hugely important for the agricultural industry as it sought to simplify the planning process for farmers and landowners looking to diversify their assets.

As well as allowing the creation of residential properties, the changes enacted allowed redundant farm buildings of up to 150 square metres to be converted to a range of commercial uses including shops, offices, storage and distribution, hotels, restaurants or cafés. The most recent changes also allow for the conversion of agricultural buildings to a state funded school or registered nursery.

In the past it was necessary to obtain full planning permission to change the use of buildings to those alternative uses. However, while the changes offered a less regimented and bureaucratic approach to putting agricultural buildings to beneficial new uses, the reality has often been quite different. Members attempting to make use of PDR have been hampered by the delays, inefficiencies and inflexibilities of the planning system.

The regulations have been open to differing interpretations and inconsistently applied across the region, leading to landowners viewing them with suspicion, adding to the perception that understanding planning rules is a dark art that is difficult to master.

However, with the correct advice it is possible to breathe life into new buildings to create a new and successful enterprise – or in today’s parlance, help to make your assets sweat.

In order to help farmers and landowners currently with various projects and ideas on their drawing boards, the CLA is holding a special event outlining the dos and don’ts of development on Tuesday, November 8, from 10am until 2pm.

Hosted by Baythorne Hall on the Suffolk-Essex border and sponsored by Cheffins, it will focus on planning and PDR, as well as offer crucial information on available rural funding, sensitive development of historic buildings, and other challenges faced during development.

The event will be led by the hall’s co-owner, George Unwin, who has so far overseen the development of a five-star self catering let and the conversion of a former grain loft into a wine shop, cookery school and meeting room. Further plans include development of a bistro/coffee shop and retail or commercial lets.

As well as leading a tour of these developments, Mr Unwin will also talk about the history of the farm, its vision and future plans, and outline the highs and lows of the work undertaken so far.

Expert advice will also be offered on rural funding and other related diversification issues, making it an essential source of information for both CLA members and non-members considering a new business venture on their land.

The event will also feature a presentation offering invaluable information on permitted development rights from Cheffins’ head of planning and development, Ian Smith.

The cost to attend the is £15 for a CLA member and £25 for a non-member, and includes lunch. To book your place, contact the CLA East regional office on 01638 590429 or email east@cla.org.uk .