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Barn conversion boom threatens rural communities

Words: Huw Morris
Barn conversion / Shutterstock_511400986

A 230 per cent increase in conversions of barns and farm buildings into homes without the need for planning permission is taking a severe toll on the vital infrastructure and local services in rural towns and villages.

Latest figures show the number of agricultural-to-residential conversions in England has risen from 226 in 2015/16 to 743 in 2017/18 – mostly in rural areas – under the permitted development rights that allow developers to bypass the planning system.

The Local Government Association (LGA) said rural areas in particular are not being provided with the local services or infrastructure, and in some places affordable housing, that would normally be required in any development going through the planning system.

It is calling on the government to use the Queen’s Speech to commit to scrapping the permitted development rights for all property types and for local communities to be given oversight of all new developments and building conversions in their areas. Some of the places seeing a high number of agricultural-to-residential conversions in the past year include Devon (122), Kent (71), Worcestershire (56), Herefordshire (39) and Staffordshire (29).

Previously landowners could convert agricultural buildings into three new homes without the need for planning permission, but last year government extended this to allow conversions of individual agricultural buildings into five new homes.

Since this change, local areas have seen the number of conversions more than double in the space of a year from 330 in 2016/17 to 743 in 2017/18.

While most permitted development conversions have seen offices turned into homes without the need for planning permission – 42,130 in three years – the LGA is warning of other ways that the system is being circumvented to the potential detriment of local communities.

Councils have also seen a surge in homes being created out of storage or distribution buildings, with four times as many last year as three years ago.

Storage to residential conversions under permitted development jumped from 55 in 2015/16 to 218 in 2017/18.

“We have concerns over the sharp rise in agricultural buildings being converted into homes without planning permission and the impact this is having on rural areas, given the lack of any requirement for developers to provide infrastructure or contribute to investment in local services such as roads or schools,” said LGA planning spokesman David Renard.

“Councils, which are approving nine in 10 planning applications, are committed to building the thousands of new homes the country needs, but these have to be of high quality and with the right infrastructure in place.

“Permitted development rules are denying councils and communities any control or oversight of this process.”

Fenella Collins, head of planning at the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), responded: “The ‘Class Q’ conversions – essentially changing farm buildings to dwellings – are subject to building regulations. Therefore it’s hard to see how they can be described as ‘sub-standard’. Furthermore, they are not exempt from the Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL), which allows local authorities who choose to implement it, the ability to raise funds from the development for local infrastructure.

“Instead of criticising these conversions, we should be pleased that farmers and landowners are contributing to the national effort to bridge the housing gap and that these new homes will help to deliver a prosperous rural economy. Farm diversification is bringing new employment opportunities to the countryside and people want to live close to their place of work. These conversions are key to doing so appropriately and sympathetically.”

Image credit | Shutterstock