When the Government introduced changes to the planning system in April 2014 to make it easier for people to convert barns into dwellings, it created a lot of hope (mainly for farmers) and hype (from locals worried about the effect on our rural environment). There would, it was claimed, be a ‘free-for-all’, enabling any old barn to be turned into a new house, with local authorities powerless to act.

Yet, recent statistics show that in the three months after the rule was introduced, 800 applications were made and just over 50 per cent were refused. So a reasonable question, therefore, would be to ask how a local authority can refuse an application under the new liberal regime.

The answer is in how the legislation was introduced. Simply put, the rule, in theory, allows the conversion of an agricultural building into a maximum of three individual dwellings provided that the proposal can adhere to various conditions. The problem is that unlike Permitted Development rights which set strict guidance, for example, on the size of extensions allowable without needing planning permission, the barn conversion system is actually a form of ‘prior approval’, which introduces a degree of subjectivity into the consideration.

The key parts of the prior approval process require the local authority to consider the: ‘Transport, highways and noise impacts of the development, and also the flooding and contamination risks on the site, and whether the location or siting of the building makes it otherwise impractical or undesirable for the building to change from agricultural use to dwelling house.’ These arguments are little different to those posed in a full planning application and hence prior approval may be better considered as a form of “planning lite” rather than an extension to Permitted Development.

The main issue is that the limited phraseology of the legislation can be interpreted in a number of ways by each of the 300 plus local authorities. Many schemes have already been refused on grounds that the proposal would be ‘impractical or undesirable’ — subjective in the extreme. For example, local authorities have refused schemes based on the sustainability of the site, e.g. sites are located away from settlements in rural areas with limited access to services — surely not a huge surprise for a barn!

Not to be defeated, the Government have now introduced additional guidance which narrows the scope for interpretation, hopefully leading to more positive results. In relation to whether a scheme would be ‘impractical or undesirable’ the new guidance now establishes that: ‘Impractical reflects that the location and siting would “not be sensible or realistic”, and undesirable reflects that it would be “harmful or objectionable”.’ Still not totally clear-cut, but certainly an improvement.

In this context it is likely that a barn located on top of a hill with no road access would be considered to be impractical, and likewise a barn next to other farm uses would be considered to be undesirable. However, the new guidance does stipulate that there should be no test for sustainability, thus reflecting the fact that barns are usually located away from services and facilities and therefore should not be refused on such a basis.

Another area where the new guidance adds clarity is in respect to the extent of the works that can be undertaken. The guidance specifies that installing or replacing windows, doors, roofs, exterior walls, water, drainage, electricity, gas or other services are acceptable if they are reasonable and necessary for the conversion. However, such new works should not include any structural elements and therefore the existing building must be, ‘structurally strong enough to take the loading which comes with the external works’ — bad news for some Dutch barns.

Let’s be clear — the initial legislation has, in many cases, proved to be a false dawn. It’s also clear, however, that the new guidance will provide far less scope for a local authority to refuse a well thought-out scheme — which should encourage those previously refused to apply again in the context of the new guidance. Less hype, and more hope perhaps.

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