Changes to agricultural Permitted Development Rights (PDR) that came into force at the end of last month could help farmers and landowners add value and breathe new life into redundant or underused buildings. But, as always, the devil is in the detail, according to Rebecca Bacon from Savills Planning and Angus Richards from Savills Rural Estate Management.

What has changed?

The changes, which are now in effect, increase the scope of the existing agricultural permitted development rights in England under The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015.

The main changes affect Part 3, Class Q (agricultural buildings to dwellings) and Class R (agricultural buildings to flexible commercial use).

The revisions to Class Q are the most significant and include the following:

  • Allows a change of use from a former agricultural building to residential use within established agricultural units;
  • Allows a change of use from a former agricultural building to residential use on sites that have ceased to be part of an agricultural unit and where the last known use of the building was for agricultural purposes as part of an established agricultural unit;
  • Permits single-storey rear extensions (subject to various requirements);
  • External dimensions can be increased by up to 0.2 metres (allowing new or replacement windows, doors, roofs or exterior walls);
  • Maximum area of each dwelling has been reduced from 465 sq m to 150 sq m. However, the total of all dwellings has increased from 465 sq m to 1,000 sq m; and the maximum number of dwellings that can be converted on the agricultural holding has increased from five to 10;
  • The building must be capable of complying with the nationally described space standard; and
  • The building must have a suitable existing access to a public highway.

The changes to Class R provide farmers and landowners with new opportunities for rural diversification. This includes opportunities for outdoor sports facilities or farm training centres, as the flexible use now includes Use Class B2 (general industrial – subject to restrictions), F.2(c) (outdoor sport or recreation), or for the provision of agricultural training. The amount of floor space that can change from agricultural to flexible commercial use has also increased from 500 sq m to 1,000 sq m.

There have also been notable increases in the maximum size of new agricultural buildings that can be erected under Part 6, Class A (agricultural development on units of five hectares or more) and B (agricultural development on units less than five hectares).

What new opportunities will these changes bring?

For Class Q, the above changes have the potential to increase the number of dwellings being delivered via the permitted development route, particularly smaller homes for rural workers and local people. This will mean a change away from the higher-value individual barn conversions that have been more common. However, achieving a greater number of smaller dwellings could bring its own challenges with regard to amenity considerations and viability.

Welcome pragmatism has been applied with the allowance of single-storey rear extensions and minor protrusions from the original building for residential conversions.

Importantly, buildings that are no longer in agricultural use but still part of an established agricultural unit, including those in equestrian use will for the first time fall within the scope of Class Q, bringing further opportunities where on-farm livery enterprises are no longer viable. Redundant barns that are no longer part of an established agricultural unit can also be brought back into use via permitted rights.

One of the changes that was talked about but has not come through for Class Q is allowing agricultural to residential conversions in National Landscapes (formerly known as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and National Parks.

For Class R (agricultural to commercial), the addition of Class B2 and F2 (c) along with the doubling of maximum floor area will give considerably more flexibility for businesses that can find a new home in converted farm buildings, bringing a further boost to the rural economy.

How much difference will the changes make to Oxfordshire farmers and landowners?

It is notable that in Oxfordshire, in the year to March 2024, there were circa 26 Class Q prior approval applications, only 14 of which were approved, leading to a potential 29 dwellings. Class Q is therefore making a fairly small contribution to Oxfordshire’s housing need.  Only time will tell whether the changes will deliver the Government’s aim of providing more smaller homes for rural workers and local people.

The most common reason for refusal for the eight prior approval applications that were refused in Oxfordshire in the year to March 2024 related to whether the building work required for the conversion would go beyond the scope of building operations permissible under Class Q.

The recent changes do not make any significant difference to this clause of Class Q but there has been case law on what might be allowed and it is important to include sufficient information to allow the local planning authority to determine whether the works required are permissible under Class Q.

Overall, the changes will hopefully see more under-used and redundant rural buildings being re-purposed for more valuable uses, making a useful contribution to farm incomes at a time of declining direct subsidies.

As always, the devil is in the detail when it comes to opportunities to use Permitted Development Rights. If in doubt, it is best to seek professional advice.

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