New rights could cut barn conversion red tape for developers

Photo by Ian Cylkowski

Proposed changes to planning regulations could help make the conversion of barns and other agricultural buildings more straightforward for farmers and their developer partners. Here, Suzanne Tucker, partner at FBC Manby Bowdler, discusses what developers need to know about the anticipated new rules. 

The national shortage of good quality and affordable homes prompted a Government review of existing planning rules, and the outcome of this study was the proposal of a raft of new measures to stop unnecessary planning red tape slowing down the delivery of new properties.

Some of the proposed changes – which went under consultation in the Autumn – apply to agricultural permitted development (PD) rights and, if made law, new legislation will soon follow to allow farmers to diversify the use of buildings and deliver new housing on their land without the need for a long and arduous planning process.

This is great news for developers, as farm plots are already hot property for development. The most recent Land Development Demand Index by Searchland found that in Q3 2023, 42.7% of land development opportunities listed had already been sold subject to contract (STC) or were under offer.

Of these, farm plots were the most in demand, making up over half (55.3%) of the under offer or sold STC listings. In fact, interest in farm plots surged 12.4% quarter on quarter.

So what do developers with farm plots need to know about the potential new rules?

More homes, smaller homes

The first planned changes are to the size and number of Class Q homes (agricultural buildings converted into dwellings) which can be delivered on a farmer’s land. This will allow more homes to be delivered, and expand the type and location of buildings that can benefit from the right as well as extending the scope of works that can be undertaken.

The Government’s proposals are that regulations be simplified to a single maximum floorspace of either 100 or 150sqm per home, while the maximum number of homes per agricultural unit increases from 5 to 10 and an overall maximum floorspace changing use of 1000sqm.

This encourages developers to deliver a greater number of smaller homes on a farmer’s land, by re-using existing buildings and thereby reducing the pressure to build homes on greenfield sites.

It’s worth noting that whatever building you would like to convert into a dwelling must be suitable for conversion. Full demolition and rebuild is not allowed. Permitted works for a barn conversion include things like the installation or replacement of windows and doors or adding water, drainage, gas and electricity supplies.

Rear extension changes

The proposed PD rights changes suggest that rear extensions to Class Q conversions be allowed. Previously, any increase in the size of the original agricultural building was not allowed but this could be waved through in the future, allowing single storey extensions of up to 4m to the back of a building if the land is already hard-surfaced (for example if it’s a farmyard), with any extension falling within the overall floorspace limit.

Whatever dwellings you have planned, the existing agricultural building must comply with minimum space standards (a floorspace of 37sqm) before being granted permission to be developed.

Building rural homes in national parks and AONB

The proposed new Class Q PD rights could be extended to apply to National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty with a view to delivering more rural homes in such locations through the re-use of underused buildings. The proposed allowance for rear extensions would not apply in these locations and World Heritage Sites are not included within the areas benefitting from this proposed expansion of the PD rights.

New opportunities for former agricultural buildings

Changes to PD rights seek to bring back into use agricultural buildings which are no longer part of an established unit. In the past, these buildings would have been excluded from PD rights, but under the proposed changes, planning for a change of use could be granted permission, for example for a barn which was once part of a working farm, but is no longer part of the main agricultural unit.

Agriculture to commercial

There are also proposed changes to the PD rights allowing changes of use of buildings from agricultural to commercial use (Class R). This includes extending the legislation to buildings currently used for forestry or equestrian use, and to allow different uses – for example outdoor sports or fitness use or the processing of raw goods (where they are produced on the farm and are to be sold on site), as well as allowing a mix of uses and a doubling of the allowable floorspace to 1,000sqm.

Whether its new housing or commercial opportunities, the proposed changes to agricultural permitted development rights could sow the seeds for change on farms in England and help developers efficiently deliver more great quality housing in rural areas where it is greatly needed.

The consultation (now closed for comments) comes amid a raft of other changes to the planning system, including not least the revisions to the National Planning Policy Framework and the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023; it is not clear when the outcome of the consultation is to be published.

For more information about how to comply with the proposed new planning laws, contact Suzanne at FBC Manby Bowdler on 01743 266294 or email [email protected] for the latest advice.

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