Fresh approach to farm buildings

PUBLISHED: 22:05 19 October 2015 | UPDATED: 14:31 21 October 2015

Renovated farm buildings

Renovated farm buildings

Archant

With the need for affordable rural housing getting greater, fresh thinking around the potential of converting agricultural buildings to meet this need could play a central role. Essex Life finds out more

Housing has become a political buzzword of late, but for thousands of individuals and families looking to find affordable housing in the rural villages they have grown up in, the provision of housing in rural areas is an urgent issue.

Ben Underwood, eastern regional director of the CLA, the membership organisation that represents farmers, landowners and rural business owners in Essex and across the eastern region, recognises that there is a rural housing crisis. ‘The delivery of affordable properties in rural areas has been woeful,’ says Ben. ‘If people are not able to live and work in the countryside, local communities and the rural economy will continue to suffer.’

Despite recent Government plans to tackle the situation, Ben believes the crisis will deepen further unless there is a radical rethink of how local planning authorities (LPAs) consider proposals to increase the number of homes in the countryside.

The Prime Minister and the Chancellor recently set out plans to accelerate home building over the next five years as part of a new Housing Bill, which is to be introduced this autumn. It will include steps to build discounted homes for first-time buyers on all reasonable-sized developments, unlock public land for hundreds of thousands of new homes and back small builders with planning changes.

And there is no doubt that there is a real need in Essex for new homes, with the county’s population forecast to balloon by more than 70,000 over the next six years.

According to an Essex County Council presentation entitled Sustainable Economic Growth for Essex Communities and Businesses, there has been insufficient supply of housing in Essex to meet household growth and enable economic growth.

‘Many rural landowners want to deliver good, affordable housing in their local areas, but they are dissuaded by LPAs and their over restrictive interpretation of national planning rules,’ explains Ben. ‘A thriving countryside needs delivery of a planning regime that encourages landowners to bring land forward for housing and ensures LPAs cannot turn down good, affordable housing proposals on spurious grounds.’

Landowners in the county are in a position to help not just with the sale of large land packets to developers, but they can also convert old agricultural buildings. Barns, stores and stables that are no longer feasible to use and in a state of disrepair can be given a new lease of life as housing or commercial lets.

In the past it was necessary to obtain full planning permission to put these buildings to an alternative use. However, Permitted Development Rights (PDRs) have dramatically simplified the process. Yet landowners had been left concerned about the unwillingness of local planners to fully appreciate how changing the use of these old buildings would underpin farming businesses and boost the rural economy.

Mike Porter has converted barns at Gowers Farm near Braintree in order to create commercial and residential space. However, he worked around the planning regime instead of with it in order to create homes — and believes other farmers would not even consider a similar project due to the attitude of LPAs to conversions.

Initially beginning with the partial conversion of the main barn at Gowers Farm 10 years ago, Mike got the necessary building regulation and planning permissions in order to create a new office for his business — before going on to create more space for other businesses and then moving on to residential.

‘Due to the residential demand, we ended up creating five residential units in old stables and a granary, just single occupancy, and for the last few years they have been available for letting — being full throughout this period,’ Mike explains.

The units, which currently house a local school teacher, council worker and a number of other people employed in and around the area, were welcomed by the local residents and parish council. However, because he believed that Braintree Council would turn down the project because planning policy would not allow for residential units on a farm, he didn’t apply for planning permission.

Mike’s residential project was a commercial and social success, so he decided to also convert an office, that was proving difficult to let, into residential space and engage with the council regarding the project and his existing units.

‘As a result of the work, I applied for change of rates and had Braintree Council come down to have a look and they remarked that it would be a good use of space,’ he recalls. ‘I also decided to inform them of the residential units we had built to service demand and was told to draw up plans and apply for retrospective planning permission.

‘We explained that we had improved the building’s appearance without changing any aspect and saved it from falling down. It’s a lovely community here, with each tenant having access to vegetable, fruit and herb gardens should they wish, as well as use of a big shared lawn area — so we could say that we had ticked boxes on recreational and communal facilities.

‘The project went to the council’s planning committee and I outlined that I had a queue for my residential units, but it could take a year or more to lease a commercial one. I ended up getting approval by one vote, which is close, but it was enough to get retrospective planning permission on every unit and everything I had done.

‘It was unconventional and I’m not advocating the approach, but if I had gone through the process then I am sure they would never have permitted any residential development here. We know people close by that have tried and tried and tried to get permission for residential in old farm buildings and they haven’t been allowed. Why? I don’t know.

‘What we have created is homes for people who work locally and support the local pubs, shops and clubs. I see absolutely no reason why there is this restriction and resistance from councils to any farmer developing barns into residential. It’s providing much-needed housing in the best way possible,’ Mike continues.

‘On the outskirts of many villages you see some low-cost housing having been built, but it has taken part of a productive field and can stick out like a sore thumb on the edge of the boundary of the village. In time it will settle in and in 100 years you would never know it was on the periphery of the main settlement, but we could have provided that number of houses, easily, with the number of differing unused barns we have around the village without any personal or topographic upsets while enhancing the village appearance with immediate effect.

‘I just don’t see why there should be the resistance to turning barns into residential. If I hadn’t done anything to my barns they would have fallen down and made the area look more impoverished’

Ben believes Mike is just one of many farmers and landowners left frustrated by what he describes as, ‘the inconsistent and unduly restrictive decisions’ to refuse conversions across Essex and the eastern region.

‘The introduction of PDRs followed a hard fought battle by the CLA, leading to significant demand from farmers and landowners to convert buildings on their land,’ Ben explains. ‘Converting old agricultural buildings to residential secures not only our farming heritage, but creates much-needed homes for people in Essex that can help to enliven and reinvigorate the county’s rural communities.’

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