Man… Build House from Shed…

It’s very tempting sometimes to leap directly from point A to point Z, without exploring the other 24 points in between.

Everybody knows and loves Class Q for example – the ability under the General Permitted Development Order ( in certain circumstances) to convert agricultural buildings to residential use. It is very easy to stand in the yard, clutching your figurative club and wearing your (thank God) figurative loincloth and immediately conclude “Man have shed.. no more need. Man get planning permission for enormous contemporary cave with Kath Kidston wallpaper… Sell to dim-witted fund manager from London tribe, me buy more swamp”

It is then equally very easy to get on the phone (or Stone Age equivalent) to your local planning consultant who might say something along the lines of; “Your swamp be in Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Council of Elders Planning Department say you no use Class Q.” At which point your planning consultant will hang up his Stone Age yogurt pot and string telephone and turn back to considering how to take down the nearest passing Woolly Mammoth…

I have a very tatty, annotated and well-thumbed copy of the National Planning Policy Framework which sits permanently on my desk. Despite only having been printed in February 2019 it looks as though it may have come from the Stone Age… The back cover has come away, the pages are dog eared, there is an inexplicable splatter of of mud across the cover and I think that I may even have taken it on holiday with me a couple of years ago.

In terms of its usefulness to the Rural Surveyor, it is right up there with John Nix’s Farm Management Pocket Book, or RG Williams’s Agricultural Valuations: A Practical Guide. To those of you who have led quieter lives, away from the screeching tyres and gunshots after midnight noir world of rural surveying and therefore have no idea what I’m talking about, these are the Booker Prize winning tomes of the rural planning consultant – Mr Nix is JK Rowling, RG Williams is the complete leatherbound Charles Dickens, and the NPPF the 81st book of the Bible…

The NPPF indicates the Government’s broad approach to planning policy and I am always shocked at how unexcited people can be by its approach to rural development – (no-one ever wants to discuss it at parties). Rural development by its very nature will usually be located in sensitive areas and will therefore be paid particular vigilance by Planning Officers , notwithstanding this the NPPF, can be hugely acquiescent to rural development opportunities. As a result, it is never far from my thoughts…

The other night, I was awoken from my slumber, sat bolt upright in bed and cried out “What about Paragraph 79(c) of the NPPF!? This paragraph is eerily absent from the mental armoury of a lot of planning consultants and discusses the development of isolated homes in the countryside as being unacceptable unless in certain circumstances, with Para 79(c) giving one of these particular circumstances as being acceptable where “the development would re-use redundant or disused buildings and enhance its immediate setting.”

Isn’t this just as significant as Class Q? Can the principle of the residential conversion of an isolated rural building be deemed acceptable on the basis of 14 words? Why does this policy not elicit the same knee-knocking, breathless discussion as its better known relative?

Unfortunately, as stated above and unlike the General Permitted Development Order, the NPPF does not grant planning permission, it simply indicates a broad approach to planning policy. It does not override adopted planning policies (the Local Development Plan), provided that they are reasonably up to date.

Let us therefore look locally to a couple of reasonably up to date development plans for examples of how this potentially pulse-racing policy might now be applied in practice. In this instance we can use two examples which are fairly close to home, both of which cover parts of the AONB where this policy might be most useful – Cotswold and Tewkesbury(1).

Tewkesbury Borough Council have helpfully provided us with Policy RES7 ‘Re-use of rural buildings for residential use,’ and state that “The re-use and conversion of redundant buildings in rural areas (the areas located outside of defined settlement boundaries) for residential use will be permitted (so far so good!) provided that;

  1. The building is of a substantial construction, is structurally sound and is capable of conversion without the need for significant new building works and/or extension
  2. Where the proposal involves a traditional building, any new works are of a scale, form, type and materials sympathetic to the character and appearance of the original building
  3. The proposal does not result in the requirement for another building to fulfil the function of the original building to be converted
  4. The proposal preserves or enhances the landscape setting of the site and respects the rural character of the area

The aim it seems of this policy, from Tewkesbury’s interpretation, is to seek to retain buildings which do not require ‘substantial new building works.’ Proposals that are tantamount to a complete re-build will not be permitted. Paragraph 79(c) therefore seems to point squarely at traditional rural buildings (note not necessarily agricultural), accepting ‘in principle’ that they are capable of conversion to residential use where this can preserve or enhance the landscape setting and respects rural character.

Cotswold too seem particularly supportive of the conversion of rural buildings through the application of their policy EC5 ‘The conversion of rural buildings to alternative uses will be permitted provided that:

  1. The building is structurally sound, suitable for and capable of conversion to the proposed use without substantial alteration, extension or rebuilding
  2. It would not cause conflict with existing farming operations, including severance or disruption to the holding that would prejudice its continued viable operation; and
  3. The development proposals are compatible with extant uses on the site and existing and planned uses in close proximity to the site.

Why oh why are we not making more use of this, particularly in our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or National Parks?

Like a couple of Gunboats lurking offshore, two now ageing Appeal Decisions may have fired warning shots in the past which unfortunately found their target(2) and which originally set the bar pretty high when the original NPPF first hove into view back in 2012, and which focussed on the need not only to preserve, but also to ‘enhance’ a rural setting – which is extremely difficult given the intrinsic beauty of our countryside, unless one could perhaps show that a particular location was somehow in need of remediating as a result of dereliction or contamination for example.

In both policy examples above however the onus now seems to have trickled down to the need to preserve rather than to enhance. It could therefore be argued that this sets the bar a little lower. Preservation could be interpreted simply as the need to have a neutral effect – the avoidance of ‘harm.’ The concept of harm is a little more tangible from a planning point of view – it could be presumed to emanate from, inter alia, driveways, car parking areas, boundary treatments and associated domestic paraphernalia which may have a detrimental, suburbanising effect on the landscape. These elements can be mitigated however through judicious design. The use of hard surfaces could be avoided in favour of more natural materials. Enclosed private areas, particularly in relation to public views from the surrounding landscape can also be avoided.

My point is that it is important to fully consider your planning options. There is a ‘golden thread’ of sustainability which runs through the NPPF, so too is a drive to locate new residential development towards existing settlements and away from ‘isolated’ locations. We are all well aware of Class Q, or development for Agricultural Workers as being avenues for rural residential development, however, Paragraph 79(c) specifically highlights isolated rural buildings as being special cases capable of conversion to alternative uses to which local planning policy has now caught up.

Therefore, don’t automatically write off rural conversions if they don’t fit the specific criteria of Class Q – look at all the aspects, consider each case on its merits and you might be sitting upon a development opportunity which could be put to work on your behalf. If you have taken advice on development in the past which may have precluded you from doing something, it may be that that advice is now out-of-date, and that potential conversion worthy of revisiting in 2021.

1 Tewkesbury Borough Council’s Local Plan i1s still in its Pre-Submission phase, however for this example, its policies align with the most recent incarnation of the NPPF and so give us a useful steer on how a Local Authority interprets Paragraph 79(c)

2 APP/X1545/W/15/3134801 & APP/P1615/W/18/3197669