Country Land and Business Association column: Planning to survive or thrive?

Julia Cuppini, planning adviser at the Country Land and Business Association

Julia Cuppini, planning adviser at the Country Land and Business Association - Credit: Archant

In this month’s CLA column, Julia Cuppini, planning adviser, CLA East, looks at the Government’s new planning guidance and how it will affect farmers and landowners

Over 1000 pages of turgid planning guidance, responsible for having provided relief chiefly to insomniacs and giving the rest of us a fair few headaches, were whittled down to a promising 52 pages, when the present Coalition Government introduced the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) in April last year.

Almost 18 months on, how is it panning out?

Coupled with a widespread shortage of housing provision, the framework seems to point to an important opportunity for rural land owning businesses to take a good look at their long term management strategies and to consider whether these long-lobbied-for, positive simplifications in the planning system might now allow the flexibility needed to put into actual practice, that elusive ‘sustainable development’ that successive governments have woven into every document known to man and possibly with a better comprehension of it, his dog.

Certainly, sustainable development can and has been subject to misinterpretation and applied as a blanket statement. As such it has sometimes been used as a rather blunt tool by the overall planning system to maintain a status quo, rather than supporting the countryside to get involved in actually sustaining itself, in terms that mean something to those facing life at grass roots level. Those who manage land will know from direct experience that our country’s much desired, beautiful landscapes and treasured flora and fauna are sustained essentially by economically viable businesses. This has been acknowledged in the new framework and is therefore to be welcomed. Not that this more hospitable planning policy environment will deliver an impact overnight, of course. For example, only a smattering of district local plans have been adopted this year and thus are compliant with the NPPF. The theory is that in these districts, planning applications which comply with it should be approved without a drama. Where local plans were not adopted before March this year in the light of the framework, then it will provide the policy support to applications of merit. The importance of putting forward an application’s compliance with the framework is fundamental to its success.

Now is a good time for those with land within the development boundary, as defined in their local plan, to take advice to assess the potential for development and promote it, if so desired. The Strategic Housing Land Availability Assessment (SHLAA) shows what the availability of land for housing is for the local authority over a 15 year period.

To bring a site forward, the policies in the relevant core strategy need to be studied and if a site might be suitable and fits the land owner’s long term plans for the holding and business, it could be suggested to the local planning authority (LPA) for submission into the site allocations plan consultation. With the shortage of suitable land within village or town envelopes, the LPA might also need to consider green field sites outside it, which have the scope for sensitive, sustainable development.

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In May this year, more breakthroughs in planning were made. The re-use of redundant agricultural buildings is now allowable without having to apply for full planning permission; in many cases, simpler and less costly, permitted development rights (PDRs) of prior notification can be employed instead, under the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995. Government provided for this using a clause in the new Growth and Infrastructure Act.

The CLA has lobbied successive governments with thoroughly researched evidence and continual enthusiasm to allow this flexibility to benefit rural areas. Now agricultural outbuildings of 500m sq or less can be converted to new uses such as shops, restaurants, small hotels, leisure facilities and offices without the need to apply for full planning permission. The objective is to help stimulate rural economic growth, which will help to underpin farming businesses, which have been under pressure in the long term. This new provision will make it easier to create much needed new business and jobs in the countryside.

A second campaign planning victory this year is the Government’s decision to provide for commercially unviable offices (B1a), which are empty or unfit for modern purposes, to be converted to much needed residential use (C3), again under PDRs.

In August, Government issued a consultation focusing on further ‘Greater flexibilities for change of use’ under PDRs including the ‘Re-use of existing redundant agricultural buildings for a dwelling house’. Open for responses from the public and interested bodies until 15 October 2013, the CLA will be putting in a thoroughly evidence based response, because it recognises the immense potential benefit to the environment, land owners, managers and all those who live and work in rural areas that these further provisions would have.

The proposals address new dwellings for land managers’ succeeding children, allowance of new farm entrants to live on a farm and enabling reinvestment in farming businesses - crucial practical ingredients in the elusive recipe for sustainable development, frequently spoken of and written in policy terms.

The consultation considers allowance of up to three additional dwellings and some physical development including demolition and rebuild. These provisions might apply in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and World Heritage sites but would be subject to conditions and limitations, which could cause difficulties or have an undesired effect on essentially good policy objectives.

So the CLA will study and respond most vigorously to the consultation, keeping at the centre, long term, and responsible stewardship of the countryside at heart and the interests of those who live and work in it. I would encourage you to support the CLA in doing this if it is also important to you.