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Planning matters

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Creating rural workspaces for a flexible post pandemic economy
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. [1] 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.[2] 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 - [3]) 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. [1] 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  [2] [3]


What came first, the chicken or the EIA rEGGs?
The Court of Appeal has quashed a planning permission granted by Shropshire Council in 2017 for an intensive poultry farming facility near Bridgnorth in Shropshire. The fundamental question of the appeal was whether the LPA, when considering the application, failed to properly consider the likely effects of odour and dust arising from manure disposal. Reviewing this judgement has highlighted the consequences of approving an application which relies on an inadequate environmental statement (ES); and has also clarified the relationship of environmental permits to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) planning applications. Context of the case On 1 September 2017, Shropshire Council granted permission for the erection of four poultry buildings at Footbridge Farm. The owner, also the applicant, intends to use the buildings for intensive rearing of poultry. The facility would operate on a 48-day cycle, rearing 210,000 chicks for 38 days and then cleaning the buildings to prepare for the next cycle. Roughly 1,575,000 broiler chickens would be reared over a year. This would produce approximately 2,322 tonnes of manure, which would be disposed of on the applicant’s fields, and any surplus would be spread on third party owned fields near to residential areas. The appellant is a local resident, Ms Squire, who lives about 300 metres from land on which manure might be spread. On granting planning permission, the Council concluded that the technical assessments submitted within the ES ‘are generally satisfactory’, and that ‘adverse impacts on local amenity can be satisfactorily safeguarded’. Additionally, the environmental permit issued and regulated by the Environment Agency (EA) would provide another level of control sufficient to address dust and odour issues. Following the High Court’s dismissal of the appellant’s claim for Judicial Review of the Council’s decision, Ms Squire appealed against the Judge’s decision on two grounds: The Judge was wrong to conclude that the environmental permit issued under Reg.13 of the Environmental Permitting Regulations would control the management of manure outside the site to which the permit is related; and The Judge was wrong to consider the development’s likely environmental effects had been assessed adequately and lawfully in accordance with the EIA legislation. Broiler chickens - source: Wikimedia Commons Summary of the judgement The Court of Appeal first addressed the interpretation and scope of the Environmental Permit, which would be a requirement for an operation of this scale. It held that there was no misunderstanding of the permit’s control, which clearly included removal of manure from the site and the EA would enforce this. The officers had simply misunderstood the role of a future ‘manure management plan’ (MMP) that was referenced in the EAs consultation advice letter as though it were an assessment to reduce the risk of pollution from manure disposal. MMPs are a requirement under the Environmental Permit Regulations (not under the site-specific permit) and must also comply with the statutory Code of Good Agricultural Practice. However, the EA had made clear in its letter that the MMP would only relate to the applicant’s land and would not control any issues arising from activities outside of the permit boundary (drawn around the chicken sheds only). More importantly, the MMP specifically relates to risks of polluting surface or groundwater – not odour and dust. Therefore, it cannot be assumed that in enforcing the site’s permit, the EA will provide additional control contributing to minimising effects of odour and dust outside the permit area. Manure spreading at a Welsh farm - source: Wikimedia Commons In relation to the soundness of the EIA, the Court considered that impacts on neighbouring properties, generated by odour and dust from manure disposal activities were indirect impacts of the proposed development therefore must be assessed through the EIA. However, the ES did not identify the third-party land on which the 1,500 tonnes of manure was going to be spread each year, nor did it attempt to provide a meaningful assessment of the likely polluting effects the manure spreading – either on the applicant’s land or any other land. The Court held that the requirement of an MMP to be produced in the future, was not a substitute for the lack of assessment in the ES, and therefore, the ES was deficient and not compliant with the EIA Regulations. The appeal was allowed, on both grounds. Lessons learned from this case Although the case’s poultry context may not be relatable to many, this decision is a reminder of the importance of ensuring that all EIAs clearly identify and fully assess all impacts of a development - direct and indirect. As the PPG states, mitigation measures are designed to limit or remove any effects of a development, consequently an ES cannot rely on mitigation to mitigate an effect that hasn’t been identified within the assessment. Furthermore, care must be taken to understand the scope, role and effect of any regulatory process, such as environmental permitting, that is considered within an ES. For instance, considering whether a permit can be relied upon as adequate mitigation, and whether mitigation is required beyond the regulatory boundary of such a permit. The appeal could perhaps also result in more thorough scrutinisation of generalised commitments which have become commonplace within ESs for similar developments, such as compliance with the Code of Good Agricultural Practice, or the fact that the process of manure spreading, as intended in this application, is common practice in farming of this intensity. Overall, we now know not to get over EGGcited when chickens are involved, as you should never hurry EIAs concerning slurry!