Make hay while the sun shines

Sally McFadden of Thomson & Bancks discusses the legal process necessary to convert agricultural buildings to residential use

"Can I convert my farm buildings to residential use?"

Usually to change the use of an agricultural building to provide residential accommodation or commercial space you need to obtain planning permission.

However, with the introduction of ‘Permitted development’ it may be possible to change use without having to go through the full planning process. (Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015 (SI 2015/596)).

Permitted development covers changes of use for various buildings; Class Q deals with the conversion of agricultural buildings to residential and Class R looks at changing agricultural buildings over to more flexible commercial uses in certain circumstances.

Although planning permission isn’t required, you do still need to make a prior approval application to the local planning authority

What is a prior approval application?

You need to supply the planning authority with information about your development and of course this will vary depending on your proposed changes. You will usually need to consider any impacts the change will have noise, air quality, highways, flooding and contamination as well as looking at the siting, design or external appearance of your proposal and whether the planning authority may consider this impracticable or undesirable.

Are there any limits on what I can develop?

In March this year further changes were announced that provide rural communities with more options to convert agricultural buildings into family homes. The maximum new homes capable of being created from existing agricultural buildings on a farm will increase from three to five and will allow for up to 3 larger homes within a maximum of 465m2; or

  • up to 5 smaller homes, each no larger than 100m2; or
  • a combination of both to create up to 5 homes provided that no more than 3 are larger homes

You can also change agricultural buildings under 500mto a flexible commercial use subject to meeting certain conditions.

What do I need to provide to the planning authority?

You need to provide the planners with the following information:

  • a written description of the proposed development and detailed plan indicating the site etc
  • a statement specifying the increase in houses, the number of smaller and larger houses proposed and if any development has already taken place the number of smaller and larger houses built
  • a site specific flood risk assessment (if applicable)
  • include your contact details and the fee.

You may also be required to supply various additional documents including:

  • any impact or risk assessment and details of any mitigation of these risks
  • details of the proposed building

Are any third parties involved? 

Once you application is received the planners may need to consult with other departments depending on any potential impacts from the development, for example.

Any increase in the character or volume of traffic may require your application to be referred to the highway authority.

If there may be a potential flooding risk, the planners must consult with the Environment Agency where the development is in an area within Flood zones 1, 2 or 3.

How long does all of this take?

The planners will specify the length of the consultation period which must be at least 21 days

The planners will also give notice of the proposed development by displaying a site notice and serving a notice on any adjoining owner or occupier, this notice will describe the nature and address of the proposed development and supply a date by which any representations must be given.

The planners need to consider:

  • any representations made
  • The National Planning Policy Framework and the local plan
  • any contamination risks

The planning authority must usually make a decision within eight weeks, where no other period is specified, starting on the day following the day which the application is received by the LPA or any longer period which is agreed in writing.

The planners may grant approval either unconditionally or subject to various conditions relating to your planned works.

When can I start work?

You must not carry out any works until you have received written notice confirming that prior approval is not required or that prior approval is granted. Technically you may, in some circumstances, be able to start works if you have not received notice and at least 56 days have passed from your application being received but it is recommended that you do not start works until you have received written notice.

Remember that any external building work associated with a change of use may still require planning permission.

Can the planners refuse to give prior approval?

Your application may be refused where:

  • the development doesn’t comply with any conditions, limitations or restrictions applicable to the proposed development under the regulations, or 
  • you haven’t supplied sufficient information to enable the planners to establish whether the proposed development is permitted.

You may have a right of appeal if you application is refused.

Are there any other considerations?

  • Depending on the works carried out, you may need planning for other matters beyond change of use.
  • You still need to comply with building regulations requirements
  • If your proposal meets the permitted development requirements but you are unsure, for peace of mind you may choose to apply for a lawful development certificate. This is not the same as planning permission but is proof that your building work is lawful.

We can infer from the changes earlier this year that the government is now encouraging use of permitted development to boost the housing supply in rural areas and creates a good opportunity for you to realise value from old agricultural buildings particularly where these are no longer suited to agricultural use.

Sally McFadden is an Associate Solicitor in the Business Services Team at Thomson & Bancks LLP dealing with all commercial property matters for a mix of business, agricultural and not-for-profit clients. She also has niche specialist experience on agricultural matters and energy and renewables. To speak to Sally call 01684 299633 or visit