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03/08/2020

Simplifying the planning system could add billions to the rural economy 

Barns / Shutterstock_1728153184

The needs of the rural economy should be a higher priority in the National Planning Policy Framework, argues Mark Bridgeman

Rumours of the death of cities are perhaps exaggerated, but it is not difficult to imagine a world where businesses – from start ups to SMEs to multinationals – shun the city in favour of home working and smaller, rural office spaces. 

The prime minister should not discourage this shift; instead he should facilitate it, and his forthcoming reforms to the planning system are the perfect place to start. 

Farmers want to farm. Of that there is no doubt. But the reality for many is that exploring new revenue streams is a financial necessity, and as many as 60 per cent already have diversified incomes with a broad variety of business interests. Time and again we hear of farmers wanting to convert old barns into new office blocks, only to be held back by a dated planning system.  

Indeed, it is so hard to navigate that, at great cost, many businesses simply give up trying to find a way to work within its restrictions and abandon development projects altogether. It is an increasingly common view that the criteria for businesses to follow in their applications are excessive creating the need for endless discussions between applicant and authority.   

"Time and again we hear of farmers wanting to convert old barns into new office blocks, only to be held back by a dated planning system"

The potential enormous time lag, with the upfront cost associated with making a planning application, and the significant risk of an unsuccessful outcome, are hindering potential rural economic development. This cannot be overstated. One planning application for the redevelopment of a site in a market town required £1 million in upfront costs for supporting evidence, and was ultimately refused. 

And this is to say nothing of the time it takes to receive planning permission. One Country Land and Business Association member spent 20 years navigating the planning system in order to convert listed farm buildings into the kind of commercial office spaces that would encourage entrepreneurs to find a home for their business in the countryside.  

The Covid-19 crisis has made the costs and delays associated with the planning system even less acceptable. Now, we desperately need a well-funded, efficient regime designed to encourage economic development in rural areas. The needs of the rural economy should be a higher priority in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and there must be greater use of ‘permission in principle’ rules for proposals with demonstrable economic benefit. Pubs that have closed due to a lack of viability should be given permitted development rights. 

Simplifying the planning system could unlock billions of pounds for the economy at a time when growth is desperately needed. We want to ensure people can live the rural lifestyle so many crave, whilst still succeeding in their chosen career. The only way that can be achieved is with a planning system designed to facilitate job creation and sustainable economic growth in rural areas. 

Mark Bridgeman is president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) 

Image credit | Shutterstock and CLA

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