What is it?
You can’t just build anywhere in the UK – you have to get permission from the local planning authority (LPA) to carry out operational development (building, mining or engineering works on or under the ground) and for material changes of use of land or buildings. Whether the change of use is ‘material’ is a judgment call for the LPA, based on past experience and help from the courts.
There are exceptions, where consent is granted through development orders (‘permitted development’) such as for the change from an office to a dwelling, or the building of a rear extension to a house. Planning permission is not required to use land for agricultural purposes.
Before you go any further, and certainly before submitting a planning application, it would be a good idea to familiarise yourself with how exactly the planning system works. Planning is a complicated subject, and there is a lot of information out there – too much for this introduction. We recommend these three:
- Here is a government guide to the planning system, ‘in plain English’.
- About the Planning System, on the Planning Portal website.
- Understanding the Planning System, part of a report by Shared Assets; this will be particularly interesting for those wanting to set up a sustainable, land-based enterprise in the countryside.
The rights to ‘develop’ land (and buildings) were nationalised by the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. The idea was that the public would benefit from the enhanced value of land (land increases in value when it receives planning permission).
The idea for planning controls evolved through concerns over unsanitary living conditions in urban areas, and protection of the countryside. Most of the housing stock in the countryside was built before 1947, and examples of sporadic and ribbon development (along roads from urban areas) were responsible for the objectives of urban containment and countryside protection that the 1947 Act was meant to address.
The shortage of rural homes has meant that they attract a premium in terms of price. Those built to meet specific agricultural needs that no longer exist (because of changes in agricultural practices) have mostly been sold off to those seeking alternatives or additions to their urban and suburban properties.
There are different types of land classifications – from green belts, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) to conservation areas and sites of special scientific interest (SSSI), and there are national and local designations outlining these in local plans. The biggest division is between land adjoining existing settlements designated for development (or having ‘hope value’), which is expensive, and where you’ll find yourself in competition with commercial developers, and land in the open countryside, which is much cheaper, but where building is actively discouraged.
What are the benefits (and problems)?
The planning system exists to stop the countryside becoming covered in commuter, second or retirement homes, increasing development and traffic in the countryside, and leaving less room for agriculture and nature. It’s also there to prevent urban areas from merging to form much bigger conurbations, and to protect listed buildings and biodiversity. It has been mostly successful in these aims (with the exception of biodiversity), but in preventing the spread of conventional housing for commuters, retirees or second-homers, it has also stifled the attempts of smallholders to build low-impact homes on their smallholdings, so that they can run small businesses, providing food and other land-based commodities for local markets. It has also blocked those wishing to build low-impact homes on the edge of settlements (but outside the development zone, where land is very expensive), so that they can practise traditional crafts, including processing food and raw materials, and providing services to farmers and smallholders, but with the need for buildings rather than land.
We believe that both these kinds of ‘low-impact development’ are in the public interest, in terms of local resilience, food and resource security, access to land, affordable housing and environmental protection. It’s up to all of us to convince the planners that this is the case. A major benefit of the planning system is that it’s very open to public engagement (see ‘influencing the planning system’, below). You can see local plans, you can object, go to committee meetings and appeals, become a councillor, comment, get involved. The whole system is very welcoming – unlike many other areas of public life. Problems arise because people don’t get involved – which allows the planning system to be used by commercial developers to their advantage.
The government recently stated that one of the aims of the planning system should be to help facilitate economic growth – but economic growth is at the root of all our environmental problems and therefore far from ‘in the public interest’. The low-impact developments mentioned above may not a) contribute much to overall economic growth, or b) be able to compete with developers for land, and so it can be very difficult for them to gain permission.
But also – because agricultural land is relatively cheap compared to land allocated for development (because you can’t build on it), some people who have no interest in farming buy it in order to try to find a way to build a cheap home on it – either by concealment or by hoodwinking planners. Similarly, farmers can get permission for affordable homes for agricultural workers, which end up being sold at a distinctly unaffordable price to people not involved in agriculture at all. These abuses might be rare (one ‘concealer’ has had to demolish his lavish dwelling-cum-castle), but in its vigilance, the planning system will be obstructing people genuinely wanting to start a new farm business.
What can I do?
The principles outlined below are the same for a rural or urban application, and are general to the UK, although there are differences in each country – the biggest one being the ‘One Planet Development‘ policy in Wales; the One Planet Council offers advice and support for OPD applications.
Since 2015 local authorities have been obliged to establish a register of potential self-builders (including groups), and a further 2016 Act created an obligation for local authorities to meet the demand of the register in very specific ways – with serviced plots, including roads, drainage etc. within 3 years of registration. Few people are aware of this register though, happily for local authorities (as it will create a lot more work) but unhappily for the government, who are relying on self-builders to do their bit for the housing shortage. We’re way behind other developed countries when it comes to self-build.
If you’re interested in self-build, register here. This could hugely increase the potential for self-build in the UK.
Choose where you want to live and what kind of home you want to build. Don’t choose land that’s susceptible to flooding, or in other places that are unlikely to receive planning permission (on top of a hill in a national park?).
Do lots of reading to eliminate the places where you’re least likely to get planning permission. The Planning Portal is the door to the planning system – it’s excellent, and will answer most of your questions. The other access point is your local plan. All local plans can be found online, so you can do all your research from home.
You probably don’t need a planning consultant – your best consultant will be your local planning officer. If they’re negative or unresponsive, you might then think about a planning consultant, but they’re expensive. You can also talk to your local councillor and parish council (which might be engaged in a neighbourhood plan).
But first, look at your local plan – which will include a portfolio of documents, including coloured map(s) to indicate local and national designations, as well as land allocated for development. In rural areas, undesignated land will be white on the map. Policies in the plan will apply to open countryside to discourage new building (apart from agricultural buildings on existing farms).
National planning policy is found in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which must be taken into account in all plan-making and decision-taking. Planning policy is designed to be updated at regular intervals as and when the government want to influence the way in which the system is being operated. It’s best to read as much as you can before making an application, to increase your chance of success. The above sources will tell you what you need to do to get permission and how to do it.
Scour the policies in your local plan, and you can also make a pre-planning enquiry to try to gain information and advice from the LPA, including about the likelihood of success of your application or conditions that might be imposed. Fees have been introduced for this, but there is a lot of free information available online, notably the Planning Portal and the online Planning Practice Guidance. Planners often say no to pre-application enquiries (it makes their life easier, after all), so maybe it’s best to do the work yourself and make an application. If they say no at pre-application, they’re ‘boxed-in’ and unlikely to change their mind, and then you’ve got a battle on your hands.
The Ecological Land Co-op purchase land in the open countryside and obtain planning permission for homes for smallholders that they lease the land to. Because they have strict environmental criteria that their tenants must adhere to, they are able to obtain planning permission where individuals would find it extremely difficult to do so. If we want to halt the loss of small family farms nationally, we either need a lot more organisations like this, or a new land-use class, where permission is granted based on ability to adhere to ecological criteria rather than ability to pay.
Planners will consult, and neighbours will get to know. You can knock on neighbours’ doors to inform them. You don’t have to ask for support – they’ll make up their own minds anyway – but you might gain some respect for doing this, and avoid misunderstandings. Inform the parish council too – talk to them before the planners do. If you get a large number of negative but reasonable responses, be prepared that it might not work.
The chances of your application succeeding will be greater if it fulfils the relevant criteria outlined in the local plan. Remember that at all times and you won’t go far wrong. Any objectors will have to show that it doesn’t, and if you ask for letters of support, make sure they show that it does. In the absence of relevant policies, more weight will be given to the individual merits of the proposal.
Download an application form from the Planning Portal or your LPA. You don’t have to own the land, although if you don’t, it would make sense to have an arrangement with the landowner and to make a purchase or lease offer subject to planning permission. Farmers are usually more prepared to lease land than sell it.
Your application will appear online, and you’ll be able to see who your case officer is (this may not be anyone you’ve had any contact with pre-application). This is the key person now, and they will deal with all interested parties. They are responsible for making the recommendation; build a relationship with them.
When they receive an application, planners will look at local policies and development plans as well as national policy and responses from neighbours and the parish council. If there are a lot of objections, it might go to committee (at which the public can speak, by prior arrangement), otherwise it will be dealt with by a planning officer (sometimes overseen by the chair of the planning committee, if there are a significant number of objections, but not enough for it to go to committee).
Once the application is live, it has to be determined in 8 weeks, or you can appeal (although it’s probably better to wait for a response, because it might be positive, and even if it’s not, you then get another bite of the cherry at appeal).
You may apply for, or through the imposition of a condition, obtain temporary permission, which can be used to create a trial period during which the impact (and the viability) of the development such as a smallholding can be assessed. The terms of this test should be established at the outset. In the open countryside the NPPF says that there should be an essential need for a dwelling. In urban areas there are other tests (eg neighbourliness, highway safety).
If and when a full permission is granted, it normally applies to the land, not a person or organisation, and it is granted for all time. However, there may be conditions attached to permission that might change that, as well as making other things either compulsory or forbidden.
Developments that are carried out without planning permission, or in breach of planning conditions can become lawful after an ‘immunity period’. In the case of material changes of use or breach of conditions then enforcement is only possible within ten years of the breach. Deliberate concealment could invalidate this, however. A four-year rule applies to buildings and a change of use of a building to a house or flat.
Here is some informal advice from friends of ours who managed to obtain permission for an off-grid, self-build home in the open countryside in Devon.
If your planning application is rejected, you can go to appeal. An appeal is actually just a planning application to be considered afresh by a planning inspector on behalf of central government. It can be dealt with through the exchange of written representations or via a hearing or public enquiry conducted by the inspector. All procedures are open to third/interested parties.
Influencing the planning system
If we want to be able build our own homes – including in the open countryside on working smallholdings – we need to engage with the planners and with the planning system. We need to teach the planners. They don’t have evidence that many people want to build their own homes, or live on smallholdings. We need to talk with them and let them know.
You don’t need any ‘insider information’ when it comes to the planning system. It’s very open, everything is there for you if you look, and there is huge potential for influencing it. For example, if we believe that agro-ecology and self-built, off-grid, eco-homes on mixed smallholdings is in the public interest, then let’s prove it, and then the planning system has to find ways to allow these things to happen, as long as it doesn’t clash with other areas of public interest, like national parks etc. There’s lots of scope for learning on both sides (by planners about agro-ecology and eco-smallholdings and by potential self-builders and smallholders about the planning system) and this can only be achieved by engagement. Commercial developers are not shy when it comes to engaging with the planners, and it shows. Now it’s our turn. Being fundamentally a political system, it is up to those with socially and environmentally progressive agendas to engage in both plan-making and in decision-taking; that is, in commenting on the merits of planning applications and also submitting proposals which demonstrate genuine sustainability.
Thanks to Dan ‘the Plan’ Scharf for information.
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Daniel Scharf is a member of the Royal Town Planning Institute and for over 40 years has provided advice on land use planning in the public, private and voluntary sectors. Daniel’s ideas for regenerating local food systems and providing affordable housing through planning at national, local and neighbourhood levels are developed on his blog.
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