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Conversion of rural buildings

Uttlesford is a rural area with many traditional farm buildings. Some of these may be suitable for conversion to residential or business use.

Rural barns
In the light of some recent appeal decisions, we have reviewed our approach to the level of supporting information required to demonstrate that residential rather than commercial use is the most appropriate re-use for a rural building.

Here we clarify the current interpretation of policy.

National and local policies

National Policy in PPS7

Re-use of buildings in the countryside

The government's policy is to support the re-use of appropriately located and suitably constructed existing buildings in the countryside where this would meet sustainable development objectives. Re-use for economic development purposes will usually be preferable, but residential conversions may be more appropriate in some locations, and for some types of building.

Planning authorities should therefore set out in LDDs their policy criteria for permitting the conversion and re-use of buildings in the countryside for economic, residential and any other purposes, including mixed uses.

These criteria should take account of:

  • the potential impact on the countryside and landscapes and wildlife
  • specific local economic and social needs and opportunities
  • settlement patterns and accessibility to service centres, markets and housing
  • the suitability of different types of buildings, and of different scales, for re-use
  • the need to preserve, or the desirability of preserving, buildings of historic or architectural importance or interest, or which otherwise contribute to local character

Uttlesford Local Plan 2005 policy H6

Policy H6 - Conversion of Rural Buildings to Residential Use

The conversion of rural buildings to dwellings will be permitted if all the following criteria apply:

a. It can be demonstrated that there is no significant demand for business uses, small scale retail outlets, tourist accommodation or community uses

b. They are in sound structural condition;

c. Their historic, traditional or vernacular form enhances the character and appearance of the rural area;

d. The conversion works respect and conserve the characteristics of the building;

e. Private garden areas can be provided unobtrusively.

Substantial building reconstructions or extensions will not be permitted. Conversion will not be permitted to residential uses on isolated sites in the open countryside located well away from existing settlements. Conditions regulating land use or development rights associated with proposals may be necessary.

Prior to the adoption of the current Local Plan in 2005, there was no Local Plan policy requirement for applicants to demonstrate a lack of demand for alternative non-residential uses (although the 1997 PPG7 and Structure Plan Policy RE2 favoured economic re-use). The current policy is therefore a significant shift from the criteria that formerly applied in considering applications for barn conversions, and is more in line with national policy.

Part of the process of demonstrating the level of demand will be to actively market the property for all the uses specified in the policy. If an applicant has genuinely sought to establish whether there is a demand, it is for that applicant to make their own judgement on how best to establish that level, and to provide an explanation of this judgement in a submission to form part of the application. This would be broader than simply relying on marketing.

In order to get a genuine benefit from the marketing process, the advertising should encompass all potential uses within the terms of the policy. Applications are frequently submitted with sparse marketing information, where the building has been advertised for "commercial use" - there is no attempt to proactively find a tenant, or to engage with tourist or community groups, etc. Such restricted advertising does not cover the full range of potential uses to which a building could be put, and will inevitably lead to a limited response.

The fact that the council still receives enquiries for new-build premises in the countryside suggests there is a demand.

To address this, applicants should go through three stages:

  • to investigate all four uses mentioned in the policy
  • to identify potential occupiers for such buildings, together with the best means to reach them
  • to approach specific groups or individuals representing such groups For example, there are likely to be a range of specialist advisors who could help in identifying the needs of such groups

There is also concern about the state of the buildings which are being advertised. It would seem logical that anyone searching for business premises to let would be interested in buildings already fit to move into; they are unlikely to have genuine interest in buildings which could take a year or more to go through the planning process and be converted - business needs are likely to have a more urgent timeframe.

Although some tenants may be prepared to enter into a pre-let agreement, many others would opt for buildings already available for use, and where there is a stated rental cost, rather than an unspecified contribution towards conversion costs.

Marketing would be more effective if a planning permission for commercial use is already in place. Ideally, the building would already be converted, but it is accepted that many owners would not invest money in a speculative conversion. At least if there is a planning permission in place, a prospective tenant would have a clearer idea of what the layout and accommodation of the resultant building would be, the costs of the conversion works, and the timescale for conversion works.

Marketing is only part of the case to demonstrate demand, and applicants should pursue potential tenants more proactively. Unless applicants can be confident in robust marketing, they should be urged to pursue commercial rather than residential re-use, and to actively approach tourist and community users. Any lack of interest would be included as part of the case.

The council must have confidence in the marketing exercise that is undertaken before permission is exceptionally granted for residential re-use.

Active marketing should occur for a continuous period of at least six months prior to the submission of an application.

As an extra point, any frame survey should be informed by the structural survey, and plans should clearly identify areas for replacement or repair. All survey work must be undertaken by a person professionally qualified to do such work.

Guidance for the conversion of traditional farm buildings

Historic England have published a useful handbook, Adapting Traditional Farm Buildings.

The purpose of this guidance is to act as an aid to understanding traditional farm buildings to help inform change, as well as to provide practical technical and design advice so that farm buildings capable of conversion can be repaired and adapted for new uses in a sensitive way, while preserving their character, significance and landscape setting.