Landworkers’ Alliance Response to DCLG Consultation Paper Greater Flexibilities for Change of Use – October 2013

The Landworkers’ Alliance wishes to respond to Question 3 of the DCLG Consultation Paper Greater Flexibilities for Change of Use. The Landworkers’ Alliance is a recently-formed national alliance of small and medium scale food, fuel and fibre producers that campaigns publicly on issues affecting us in the UK.

We do not agree that there should be permitted development rights, as proposed, for existing buildings used for agricultural purposes to change use to a dwelling house (C3) and to carry out building work connected with the change of use. We believe that the proposals concerning reuse of existing redundant agricultural buildings for dwellings will have a negative impact on our members, and on UK agriculture more generally, because they:

  1. Incentivise property speculation by rural landowners which will impede agriculture, and in particular make it more difficult for new entrants to gain a foothold in the sector.
  1. Conflict with policies in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), leading not only to a somewhat contradictory general policy environment but also to flagrant inequities between individuals at the local level.
  1. Run down existing agricultural infrastructure, to the possible detriment of future farming needs.

We expand on these points below.

1. Incentivise property speculation and impede new entrants

Comparison of market prices for residential dwellings with prices for agricultural land with non-residential farm buildings suggests a considerable uplift available to landowners if impediments to change of use to residential dwellings are removed. This will strongly incentivise landowners to convert farm buildings to dwellings and to engage in other speculative behaviour, such as selling off agricultural land and buildings separately. Given the modest financial returns usually available through farming, the proposals are therefore likely to price out of the market those who wish to farm and to use existing farm buildings as farm buildings (or indeed as dwellings associated with farming), with a depressing effect on agricultural activity and small-scale agricultural innovation.

The government’s Future of Farming Review Report addresses the current problems in attracting new entrants into agriculture, and acknowledges that the difficulty of gaining access to land is one impediment for new entrants. The proposals in the present consultation will undoubtedly make these difficulties worse by pitting in the same market new entrant farmers with little capital against well-resourced developers and homebuyers with no interest in farming. Many of our members are new entrants who are often seeking small parcels of agricultural land with attached farm buildings in order to establish new and innovative farm enterprises. The proposals are likely to be directly inimical to their interests.

2. Conflict with policies in the NPPF

The NPPF (Paragraph 55) states that local authorities should generally avoid isolated new homes in the countryside in order to promote sustainable development. Elsewhere (Paragraph 30) it emphasises the importance of patterns of development that reduce greenhouse gas emissions through facilitating the use of sustainable transport. Relevant exceptions to this policy mentioned in the NPPF are:

  •  where there is an essential need for a rural worker to live at their place of work
  • where the development would re-use redundant or disused buildings and lead to an enhancement to the immediate setting

Local planning authorities are typically highly restrictive in their interpretation of what constitutes ‘essential need’ for rural workers’ dwellers – in our opinion often excessively so, to the detriment of a thriving local, small-scale farming sector. Nevertheless, we support the intention behind this policy to prevent land speculation under the guise of non-bona fide agricultural enterprises. However, the policy would be undermined by the consultation proposals, which explicitly allow speculative residential development in existing farm buildings. The consultation document does not explain why these ‘isolated new homes’ made available through change of use should be exempt from the strictures that apply to building entirely new agricultural dwellings, and it makes no mention of the ‘enhancement to the immediate setting’ specified in relation to reuse of redundant buildings in the NPPF.

If the consultation proposals were implemented, many new entrant small-scale farmers would be priced out of land with existing farm buildings and would have to buy bare agricultural land, which they would likely have to develop into functioning farms by constructing farm buildings (and possibly farm dwellings) at high financial cost and through a time-consuming engagement with the planning process in which extensive justification of their agricultural activities would be required. Yet homebuyers of former farm buildings would be exempt from this process. This would create deep inequities in the local planning system to the detriment of small-scale and new entrant farmers. Also, as non-farmers living in often isolated rural locations, the domestic activities of homebuyers of former farm buildings would likely rely on extensive private vehicle use which would seem to contradict the greenhouse gas mitigation intentions of the NPPF.

Presumably, local planning authorities would wish to consider the overall impacts of proposed changes of use from agricultural buildings to dwellings in granting prior approval for permitted development. But to do this adequately will require an elaborate effort on the part of LPAs, and the advantages of processing such applications via permitted development rather than planning applications is therefore questionable.

3. Run down existing agricultural infrastructure

As mentioned previously, the proposals incentivise the speculative abandonment of farm buildings in order to take advantage of the uplift available from residential change of use, against which the safeguards listed in paragraph 38 of the consultation seem likely to be an inadequate bulwark in practice. It is inevitably hard to predict the future course that farming will take, but there are reasons to think that the importance of the smaller-scale, carbon-light, energy-lean, labour-intensive, mixed forms of agriculture being pioneered by many of our members may loom larger in the future. Such farming requires more diverse farm buildings and infrastructure than is the case, for example, on a typical modern arable or stock farm. If the consultation proposals are implemented with their incentives to redevelop such buildings as non-agricultural dwellings, there is a danger that many such buildings will be permanently lost to agriculture, impeding future transitions to more sustainable forms of agriculture. What is regarded as a ‘redundant’ building now may not be so regarded in the future. There is a considerable present demand for agricultural buildings among our members.

We accept that there can be (albeit rare) situations in which a farm building is redundant and conversion to a non-agricultural dwelling may be a genuinely worthwhile local option. However, we believe that this should be subject to the proper scrutiny and opportunity for local debate afforded by a normal planning application. We are strongly opposed to the generalised and pre-emptive support for all such conversions that the consultation is proposing.