“ Rural Britain is not a museum”. It is an important part of the national economy…”
[APPG – ‘Levelling up the rural economy: an inquiry into rural productivity 2022]
For those of you hoping that the government’s much vaunted levelling up policy will reach non-urban areas, you’ll be delighted to hear that Defra has launched its latest policy paper ‘Unleashing Rural Opportunity’ containing, among other suggestions, five key planning proposals designed to help grow the rural economy. At first reading (and second) it all sounds a bit vague – a proposal ‘to consult’; a commitment to ‘explore’; and a promise ‘to consider’.
Of the five proposals, only one (to provide £2.5m funding for a network of ‘rural housing enablers’ to help boost the supply of rural housing) appears – sort of – definite. There is a degree of déjà vu here – various bodies including the CLA and CPRE have been agitating for housing and employment policies that reflect the actual requirements of the rural population rather than those ‘designed for urban areas and not rural circumstances.’ [Responses to the 2016 Rural Planning Review].
What is the government proposing?
Most organisations with knowledge of, and support for, thriving rural communities are likely to find the government’s proposals too cautious. Much of the groundwork into what rural areas need has already been done by the work of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Rural Business and the Rural Powerhouse (APPG) which last year produced a report on levelling up the rural economy which they followed up earlier this year with another report, The Rural Premium, looking at the impact of the cost of living crisis in rural areas. In compiling the reports, the APPG heard evidence from a large number of organisations and individuals with deep knowledge of, and interest in, all matters rural. The result is well worth reading, particularly in the context of Defra’s five key planning proposals:
- To consult on making it easier to convert redundant agricultural buildings to residential.
- To consult on wider changes to permitted development to support farm diversification.
- To introduce a new network of rural housing enablers (to act as ‘honest brokers’ between developers and local authorities, backed by £2.5m funding).
- To explore additional measures to unlock more small-scale rural housing.
- To consider if local planning authorities need more rural-specific training.
Where is the appetite for rural development?
Take the first proposal. Originally introduced in 2014, Class Q permitted development already allows the conversion of redundant agricultural buildings into residential units, albeit within a fairly prescriptive qualifying framework (tweaked over the intervening years). The attitude of local planning authorities (LPAs) to Class Q applications varies considerably and case law to date indicates that whether or not an application is approved is a matter of judgment. Certainly, when first introduced, fewer than 50% of applications were approved.
Making the process easier will only have an impact if LPAs change the way they apply planning regulations, as outlined very clearly by the APPG reports. Both provide valuable background into the reality of rural life, outlining the disconnect between what is actually needed in terms of housing and employment development and how the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is applied. This is starkly demonstrated by the former government chief planner’s belief that ‘rather than the problem being with the existing regulations per se, it is the application of these policies and regulations that is the barrier’. The NFU concurs, stating that planning policy “was not a barrier to rural productivity” but that “the process by which an application gains assent is often torturous, unduly lengthy and beset by challenges.”
The CLA’s head of planning describes the “mindset about what takes place in rural areas” as having a stultifying effect on growth, along with a desire to preserve rural areas in ‘aspic’. As the Rural Premium report records: “Many planning decisions are based on out-of-date local plans, and sustainability criteria that do not match modern lifestyles, placing weight on whether an area has a pub or a Post Office than on infrastructure like high-quality internet connection or availability of services in nearby villages. “ – “The NPPF currently fails to assess the economic and social benefits to the rural economy that a small development could bring, for example, providing more children for the village school.”
It's not just planning, the tax system needs addressing too.
The government already has plenty of evidence from those who understand rural communities about what they really need. Will another consultation / exploration / consideration help? Certainly, the idea of introducing additional training to help planning officers apply regulations more pragmatically would be welcome, as would the recruitment of more planning officers to address the delays in the system. Allowing smaller scale housing developments in places where people want to live and work goes with saying. Farmers and landowners would also welcome a relaxing of planning restrictions to help them diversify - too many already face opposition to their plans to develop or extend current farming operations or branch into a new businesses.
But it’s not just about loosening planning restrictions, the tax system also needs to be addressed: if diversifying the farming business means that farmers lose APR then, as the LEP Network has already stated ‘many farmers report being discouraged from diversifying because this can change their tax status’. Likewise, the Chartered Institute of Taxation (CIOT) notes that “the tax system positively discourages farmers from significant non-trading diversification (eg letting redundant farm buildings for offices / storage or letting land for solar or battery storage schemes) because they risk losing IHT APR on the part of the farm affected…“.
What is clear is that rural areas cannot be treated as smaller, poorer versions of their bigger urban cousins. Those living and working in rural areas have a different set of priorities and needs, which if addressed effectively would result in a welcome economic boost. In reality, the government shouldn’t need to consult – the work has already been done and the evidence is clear. These latest proposals will simply add more delay and dither.