I’m sure we all well remember over a year ago in March 2020 the sudden feeling of restlessness and unease which swept through the nation and workplaces as headline after headline delivered the irrepressible news that this virus was also sweeping through the nation, and it was about to upend life as we knew it for a longer period of time than any of us would have dared imagine.
In what felt like an overnight transition, businesses which were still allowed to operate had flexibility forced upon them, as employees found themselves working from home with new working practices put in place with a rate of urgency never before required.
It has been a challenging time for almost all, and were it not for the flexibility which businesses have demonstrated they can wield to endure and survive, it would have been significantly harder for a great many more people. And for the most part, here we are over a year later, many of use still in these ‘temporary’ working arrangements.
Though with the arrival of spring, the grass roots of normality seem to be coming through and the return of a previous reality appears on the horizon. Now represents the best time to ask ourselves, how do we want to balance our work and our lives? Now we have demonstrated that flexible working can work, and certain people can thrive within it, is it the correct decision to fastrack a return to the previous way of doing things?
Demand for rural property has been through the roof due to the pandemic, as people realised that rural properties are often larger, close to natural beauty hotspots and are typically cheaper than an urban equivalent. These rural locations are feasible if people no longer need to commute to a city-centre office. 
But whilst the residential flight to the countryside has been well documented, there has also been growth in the market for rural business space to support those living in rural areas and needing the benefits that a convenient office-space can provide. There is a little-used part of the planning system that facilitates the provision of these working spaces through Permitted Development rights; allowing for the conversion of Agricultural Buildings to business hubs, amongst other uses.
Permitted Development Class R permits the change of use of agricultural buildings to a flexible commercial use of a retail unit, restaurant or café, office, commercial storage/distribution use, hotel, or a range of leisure uses, such as a concert hall or gymnasium.
The permitted development route establishes that the principle of the development is acceptable, subject to meeting certain criteria;
The buildings have been used for agriculture since July 2012;
No more than 500sqm cumulative floorspace is proposed to be changed;
The agricultural building proposed to be converted is not a Listed Building.
If the cumulative floorspace proposed to be changed does not exceed 150sqm, the following information must be provided to the LPA:
the date the site will begin to be used for any of the flexible uses;
the nature of the use or uses; and
a plan indicating the site and which buildings have changed use.
If the cumulative development exceeds 150 sqm the following must be submitted to the LPA for Prior Approval:
an assessment of the transport and highways impacts of the development;
noise impacts of the development;
contamination risks; and
flooding risks on the site.
The LPA, through the Prior Approval process then has 56 days to respond to the application stating that prior approval is acceptable or refuse the application. If they do not respond within the 56 days, the application is granted consent. The application can only be refused on the grounds of unacceptable highways, flooding, noise or contamination impacts as a result of the proposal.
While the above process establishes the acceptability of the use of the agricultural building for commercial purposes, any material amendments to the fabric of the building in order to facilitate this change of use would require a separate planning application. Given the national policy support to create rural working spaces, these applications tend to be straightforward.
Lichfields has worked on numerous Class R applications nationally, most recently at Old Bewick in North Northumberland. The opportunity for these developments exists in all rural areas in England and Wales, and provides a simple mechanism which bypasses the bulk of the planning process to deliver the rural workspaces that are anticipated to be in high demand in the post pandemic economy.
The relatively simple route through the planning process provides an attractive, reduced risk opportunity for agricultural building owners to diversify and supplement their income streams on their estate; while creating an environment for the new mobile workforce who have recently left the city to work in their countryside environment.
The links between reconnecting with nature and the mental health benefits it provides are well established (Source - ) and the creation of more rural workspaces would bring often disused buildings back into use while taking advantage of an anticipated demand for these environments. The formation of new ways of working, reaping the mental health benefits of reconnecting with nature through working in the countryside would represent a significant positive to take away from the difficult situation we have all endured.
If you would like to discuss any of the opportunities raised through agricultural permitted development, please feel free to get in touch with me at any time.
 Farming UK: 1 in 2 young people want to swap city for countryside; Rural Services Network: Lockdown drives demand for rural property; and Rural Services Network: Increasing demand for rural properties to increase as pandemic continues
A new Green Belt section was created when three brief paragraphs were added to the Planning Practice Guidance in July 2019. They relate to quantifying impact on openness and Compensatory Improvements. This blog discusses the aims and implications of Compensatory Improvements and looks at the issues it raises.
New Guidance on Compensatory Improvements
The guidance has been provided to contextualise Paragraph 138 of the NPPF which states:
“[The LPA should] set out ways in which the impact of removing land from the Green Belt can be offset through compensatory improvements to the environmental quality and accessibility of remaining Green Belt land.” (Ref: NPPF 2019, Para 138)” [Lichfields Emphasis].
“Where it has been demonstrated that it is necessary to release Green Belt land for development, strategic policy-making authorities should set out policies for compensatory improvements to the environmental quality and accessibility of the remaining Green Belt land.” (Ref: PPG, Paragraph: 002 Reference ID: 64-002-20190722)
Following release, policies should set out Compensatory Improvements to the environmental quality and accessibility of the remaining Green Belt land, this could include:
New or enhanced green infrastructure
Woodland or other appropriate planting
Landscape and visual impact enhancements
New walking or cycling routes
It is possible that these Compensatory Improvements could become part of Very Special Circumstances, though this remains unproven.
These are to be secured by conditions, S106 or CIL, with S106 recommended to secure the long term maintenance of any improvements.
The implication of this guidance is that the LPA must decide, or clients could propose, where to locate the Compensatory Improvements. The remaining Green Belt land where these improvements are located will become of higher value and greater importance and therefore harder to remove from the Green Belt in the future. The wording of the guidance is clear that the improvements should be located in remaining Green Belt land, however in practice it is likely that the areas deleted from the Green Belt will have an area designated for these improvements immediately adjacent, ideally within the ownership of the same landowner. If another landowner is needed, this could add to the complexity of the development and potentially even a ‘ransom’ situation. As land is slowly deleted from the Green Belt over time, these compensatory improvement areas could become parks or landscaped areas surrounded by new urban development; potentially not fulfilling the Green Belt purposes but becoming important urban green spaces.
The location and form of Compensatory Improvements now represents a key policy requirement which must be met when proposing sites for removal from the Green Belt. As well as demonstrating the requirement for the site to be deleted, an assessment will need to be made to determine an appropriate package of Compensatory Improvements and a parcel of land within the Green Belt within which the improvements could be located will need to be identified. Developers will then need to propose the nature and extent of the Compensatory Improvements and how they will be delivered and managed. Once secured, it would be necessary to demonstrate both the deliverability of the Compensatory Improvements and that they would constitute a significant benefit for the sites deallocation.
Issues and unexplained mechanisms?
In light of the above, if there is no area for Compensatory Improvements following the deletion of land, it is not immediately clear how the LPA will locate areas for Compensatory Improvements. It may be that through the Green Belt Review, the LPA, alongside landowners and developers, will identify the most valuable areas of the Green Belt, i.e. the areas which meet most of the five tests. It is worth noting that these may not necessarily be the areas of Green Belt where improvements would have the greatest impact. Given that these areas are the least likely to be deleted due to their positive contributions, it may be the case that the Compensatory Improvements are located on these areas. It would be prudent therefore to understand if Compensatory Improvements required by a sites deletion can be located on this land, and the potential landownership issues this may cause. Alternatively, if improving access is the key objective, the other land close to the urban edge and/or transport infrastructure could be most suitable.
Securing a deal on any land needed for Compensatory Improvements will also be crucial. Ideally this should be understood, confirmed with the LPA then a deal done with the landowner before the removal of the Green Belt is publicized through consultation on a draft local plan. If a deal isn’t struck then a landowner may take advantage of an opportunity to increase the value of their land as the housing development becomes more dependant upon it. The additional cost of Compensatory Improvement Land and the improvements themselves also need to be accounted for as an additional cost on the housing development. They could compromise the viability of development when other costs and contributions are taken into account or reduce the return to the landowner to a level that does not incentivise them.
If the owners of development land do not own any other land, should the land owner of where the Compensatory Improvements are to be located receive residential ransom values for having them there? While they are indeed crucial to unlocking the Green Belt release, this could be a disproportionate addition to the cost of development for what would be landscaping and ecological enhancements located on another owners parcel of land. Demonstrating that the location of the Compensatory Improvements have already been secured through discussions with landowners will be an essential part of demonstrating the deliverability of a housing allocation, though there is huge uncertainty in assessing what scale of Compensatory Improvements would be considered appropriate. This is completely subjective and there is significant scope for disagreement with officers and councillors.
This clearly also presents an opportunity for some landowners. They could receive additional value for their land by offering it as a suitable location for Compensatory Improvements. Alternatively, if one has aspirations for development on a site currently designated as Green Belt, it will be crucial to avoid any Compensatory Improvements being located on this land, though ultimately the landowner will have the final say.
Compensatory Improvements could be another well meaning planning mechanism that becomes a highly controversial area as the parameters are established through expensive and costly legal cases.
Securing the release of land from the Green Belt for residential development already required ‘exceptional circumstances’. The additional requirement of securing Compensatory Improvements represent a further very difficult obstacle for landowners and developers to overcome. However, with careful planning and negotiation, with a good deal of creativity, if could also present opportunities to unlock suitable land by presenting an attractive considered package of development land and Compensatory Improvements. Lichfields have significant experience in the promotion and development of Green Belt land, we are always open to speaking to landowners and developers on any issues that arise.