The growing housing shortage we face in the United Kingdom is becoming increasingly apparent in rural areas. Much of the planning policy is focused on urban areas without any special regard to the open countryside. One of the Government’s solutions to this problem is the conversion of redundant agricultural buildings into residential use via Permitted Development rights, introduced in 2013, originally known as Class MB and more recently Class Q. The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development Order) 2015 sets out the qualifying criteria at Part 3, Schedule 2 of the document. For the purposes of planning this will be development consisting of: “A change of use of a building and any land within its curtilage from use as an agricultural building to a use falling within Class C3 (dwelling house) of the Schedule to the Use Classes Order” and “Building operations reasonably necessary to convert the building referred to in paragraph (a) to use falling within Class C3 (dwelling houses) of that schedule”.
There are a set of conditions which must be met for prior approval to be granted under Class Q. The rights are removed for all agricultural buildings located within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, National Park or SSSI and a full planning application for a change of use will need to be made in these areas. The building itself must have been in an agricultural use on 20th March 2013. The current rules allow up to three dwellings to be created with a maximum floor space of 450 square metres on a site but there are proposals to change this to allow 750 square metres, for a maximum of five new dwellings, each with a floorspace up to 150 square metres.
One of the main reasons for refusal is often that the structural integrity is not sufficient to support the weight of the cladding for conversion. In our experience local authorities are often inconsistent in their approach. It is generally advisable to get a full structural assessment done by a qualified structural engineer to deal with this point. This will be crucial to the application being successful. In November 2016, the High Court judgement in Hibbitt v. SSCLG  covered the issue of ‘convertibility’. The line between conversion and new built is a thin one and in this case the judge deemed that the works proposed were a rebuild which did not constitute permitted development. In summary, any substantial rebuilding will lead to the creating of a new building and fall out of the category of conversion.
In terms of sustainability, Government Guidance has clarified the fact that farm buildings may be in an isolated location and will rely on the use of the private car and planning cannot be refused on this basis. Agricultural buildings are, by their very nature, rural and located in the open countryside where people will need a car to get to towns! In March 2017, the High Court ruling in East Herts DC v SSCLG  clarified that while accessibility of location is not an irrelevant consideration when considering Class Q, “the bar in relation to the test of unacceptable inaccessibility will necessarily be set significantly higher than it would in the context of an application for planning permission”. The Judge found that Planning Practice Guidance reflected the correct approach.
The potential issues of flooding, noise, highways and contamination will need to be considered and the council will need to the satisfied that the amenity of future occupants will not be impacted on. Where appropriate mitigation strategies may be required.
Often the client expectations in terms of design can be high for the permitted development route and the reality may be far removed. There must be no external works to the building save for external windows and doors so the house will still appear ‘barn like’ with a very limited curtilage area attached. If all the boxes are ticked, using Class Q can be a useful way of maximising the value of redundant farm buildings by creating houses however, before an application is made to the council care should be taken to ensure all the necessary information has been provided.
Increasingly, local plans are drafting their own policies for converting barns into residential use where Permitted Development is not available. Wealden have recently drafted a policy adopting a ‘flexible approach’ which includes both conversion and rebuild for all areas including within areas of landscape designation. The new Ashford Local Plan to 2030 allows for the conversion of redundant barns to create a maximum of three dwellings on a site where the agricultural use has ceased. Further to this, the Government’s housing white paper ‘Fixing Our Broken Housing Market’ published in February 2017 focuses on the reuse of brownfield land for residential use, including the conversion of agricultural buildings.
Although the recent High Court cases of Hibbitt and East Herts DC have tested the deliverability of Class Q the process of turning barns into houses is very much alive. The shortage of rural housing will not go away and local authorities are now following suit.
The team at the Rural Planning Practice are experienced rural planners and we specialise in these types of application. We have offices in Cirencester, Gloucestershire and Cranbrook in Kent so please contact us by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or phone (01285 719568 | 01580 201888).