Obtaining planning permissions for residential accommodation in the countryside is our biggest problem
The general policy enshrined in the planning system is to restrict the growth of the number of residents in the countryside. The policy is to keep development in ‘sustainable’ locations, existing towns or ‘viable’ villages and even then to limit this as far as possible to affordable housing for local people. This policy is in some ways understandable as it is designed to protect the countryside and prevent it being swallowed up by ‘executive’ estates. The policy is maintained in the face of considerable pressure to live in the countryside. As we all know, the restrictions are severe and have resulted in the crazy price of property which means that you have to be pretty wealthy to legally move to the countryside.
Unfortunately the same rules are applied to people who want to live sustainably off the land. Or at least it does in most cases. The movement for ‘low impact’ smallholdings is receiving some very restricted success – e.g. Lammas in Wales and temporary permissions for a cluster of smallholdings near Tiverton sponsored by the Ecological Land Co-Op which will involve the construction of non-permanent low impact dwellings.
When we look at properties, the varied nature of the planning permissions quickly comes to light. What they often have in common is that the cottages, converted from barns and other buildings, have ‘holiday cottage’ permissions. This means they are not to be used as ‘independent units of accommodation’, ‘permanent residential units’ or ‘permanent dwellings’ – the exact wording varies. When a property has permission to convert old barns into dwellings this is reflected in the asking price.
The reasons given for ‘holiday only’ permissions are varied, one is that they are seen as unsustainable because they are located away from ‘established’ centres where community services are available’ (i.e. a viable village). Another is that they do not have ‘individual residential curtilages’ (gardens) this is apparently not seen as acceptable in rural areas. There are other objections on the grounds that the roads are not adequate for the increased traffic generated.
The big, big question is how do we overcome these issues?
Under the radar
There has been much discussion amongst rural dwellers about living ‘under the radar’ and this is one option which many adopt and get away with providing nobody ‘shops’ them (neighbours, resentful locals, etc). Many do break these rules with holiday cottages. Some properties are less likely than others to have trouble and there may be legal ways with some of them to officially live in different buildings.
There are other problems with living ‘under the radar’ the main one is that the mortgage company will not authorise a mortgage if all is not above board. So generally under the radar is not worth trying especially as we will be running a fairly high profile permaculture establishment and we will need the cooperation of the planners for all sorts of things.
Getting planning permission for change of use
This is obviously the better option if it is possible. On what grounds might this be possible?
1. Find an acceptable new rural use based on the reality of our community and its viability as a permaculture smallholding. This is a big challenge but could be a very positive way forward. We would need to convince the planners that our planned new business had many of the following characteristics:
i. the property has excellent access in that traffic generated will not overload the local road network (small lanes) and it was genuinely rurally sustainable with a green transport policy
ii. residents would be working on site in ‘live work units’ which minimised commuting
iii. the project was economically viable in the sense that those living on site could legitimately make their living from the land.
iv. it would enhance the economy of the area by bringing tourists in
v. it would create a presents a viable use for a traditional building which might otherwise be lost.
vi. it contained a ‘106 agreement’ restriction whereby the individual properties cannot be sold off separately
vii. the local village is very close and the community will be an asset to it
viii. we can demonstrate the support of the local community
2. Economic reasons for a change of use can be established. E.g. by establishing that the use of an existing holiday cottage for visitors is not economically viable. This has often been cited as a reason for change of use but it is very difficult to convince planners of the case, especially when the property is not in or close to a sustainable village.
3. There is a greater chance that permission can be obtained for renting properties than for those that can be owner occupied. The owners of Beer Farm, a property we considered in 2010, achieved this when they fought an appeal to obtain residential use. In their case the inspector made a condition whereby each cottage was ‘ancillary’ to the other in its pair thus trying to ensure they were let and not sold as self contained residences.
4. Loopholes in the permissions can exist but are dubious. Worth a look though. One source states that “…. if a holiday home was permitted as a conversion but then not built in strict accordance with the plans it may represent an ‘unauthorised development’. So provided it has been built and completed for more than four years any planning conditions will no longer apply”. This source is not completely reliable – they made an error in the 4-year/ten year rule in the same article. http://www.homebuilding.co.uk/feature/planning-approval-conversions (Dijksman Planning Llp)
5. Precedent – the property has not been used, or built according to the permissions granted. This could be for example if it has been lived in for more than 10 years by a full time resident and you can prove this. (10 year rule)
Any or all of these approaches may be possible at a particular property – or something else altogether might be the best option. Having looked at a property and decided we like it, can get the money together to buy it and have the people and skills to develop and run it it we then need to approach the planning office in an open and friendly manner with ideas which fit in as well as possible with their policy. Approaching them in ‘battle mode’, as with the last two items above, is bound to cause a long drawn out battle, not only for the current proposal but also for future developments.
Richard Jannaway: January 2012
There has been much work done around how to achieve sustainable development in the countryside.
Chapter 7: The Planning Office of ‘The Land is Ours’ have produced a set documents to help with this. Here is their publications list