It seems a long time ago now since the beginning of our agricultural planning journey.
It was November 2006 when I first contacted NewLandOwner for advice. We were in the throes of buying 15 acres of pasture in Rutland. The site had the added benefit of a very large barn. We had no experience of landowning and certainly none of the planning process. After speaking to NewLandOwner, about our plot for planning potential they said we had bought well (more by luck than judgement I think though) and advised that to obtain planning consent for a residential dwelling in the countryside we needed to be running a profitable agricultural business of some kind. And so the long process began of deciding not only what we wanted to do but how we were going to achieve I found on the internet, we arranged for them to visit us to assess it. Please don’t buy some land and mistakenly think you can put a mobile home on it with the hope that by keeping a few animals you will be able to get planning permission to live there. Unfortunately it’s not as straight forward as that. You really do have to want to work in the countryside and run a successful business. Just wanting to “live the good life” is not enough. Other than the fact that I had always had horses, we had no previous experience of keeping livestock so I enrolled on one of NewLandOwners “Getting Started in Smallholding” weekend courses. This gave us an insight into pig breeding, keeping chickens, cattle and sheep along with land management, horticulture and the legal requirements related to keeping livestock. I think one of the most important things is to do what you enjoy and the course helped us decide what areas we would like to start with. The next step was to find a Planning Consultant. Don’t underestimate how difficult it can be to obtain planning in the countryside so you definitely need professional help. Unfortunately, this help can come at some considerable cost and the longer you have to fight with the council the larger the bills get, but I’m convinced that without professional advice we would not have succeeded. My advice is don’t skimp in this area otherwise it could cost you more in the long run. Neil took a back seat here and I took on the role of “planner” dealing with the consultants and doing lots of research. To be honest I had no idea what I was about to get into but concluded that things were not going to run smoothly, after all if it was easy everyone would be at it. I telephoned and visited several planning consultants before finding and using Heaton Planning Consultants. In the meantime we have bought our first 50 laying hens and four rare breed pigs. We had bought animal housing and had a local man erect some fencing for the pigs. These weaners were to be the start of our pig breeding business. Two were boars to fatten and kill and two gilts to keep as breeding stock. This was the beginning of our Business Plan which had been put together by Rob and Dave at NewLandOwner. As Rob and Dave are both “Old Timers” (I’m sure they won’t mind me saying so) they have a vast experience of all things farming having been farmers all their lives. This was one of the main reasons for choosing to work with them. No better people, I thought, to write an agricultural business plan than someone who is in the know. Anyone can put figures down on paper but what is also needed is a practical understanding of what is really involved and what is actually feasible, and as in our case they needed to be able to argue their reasoning both in writing to the council and at the appeal hearing. We worked closely together put forward a business plan that was not only workable for us but that fitted with our potential planning application. All businesses and planning applications are individual but have the same goal, to be successful. Spencer and Jenna at Heaton Planning then did an assessment report to determine the likelihood of our application being successful. There are never any guarantees but what they were looking for was to establish the policy principles of obtaining planning permission. All local planning authorities have to follow the guidance issued by Government but the interpretation can be very different from one authority to the next.
Agricultural Planning and the PPS 7
As this study showed we had a good chance we set about putting an application together. The application was based around the business plan and obviously that aim was to be able to live on site. To my mind no one wants to have to travel to and fro when looking after livestock, especially in the winter, but unfortunately “want” doesn’t come into it when applying for planning permission. You have to “need” to be there. An “Appraisal of Need” was also included within our business plan. This need is defined by Government planning guidance in something called the PPS 7 and Annex A. Though, in my opinion, the PPS 7 can be a little ambiguous, it is the basis of any agricultural planning application and failure to comply is sure to result in a refused decision from any council. The PPS 7 is all about sustainable development in rural areas and how such developments impact on the countryside. The most important word here, I think, is sustainable. All our problems seemed to relate to this issue and many other applications I had researched had the same type of problems. Having said that there are a multitude of other points over which you could have arguments with the council over. It is, therefore, imperative that you and your chosen consultants know the PPS 7 inside out and that you address every possible issue that you can before making your application. Lots of hard work and research beforehand can pay dividends in the longer term. The PPS7 covers everything from the siting, access and suitability of the proposed dwelling through to farm diversification and tourism. Annex A is specific to agricultural dwellings and the need to comply with what is called the “Financial and Functional Test” This turned out to be the bane of our lives. The PPS 7 is clear that new homes in the open countryside need special justification so it should follow that each application should be tested hence the F & F test. Basically, the enterprise should be able to sustain at least one full time agricultural worker, i.e. me, not only from a financial point of view but also for the enterprise to function I would need to be on hand at all times. Examples of this are birthing throughout the year and at any time of day or night, control of heating or watering systems that would result in loss if such a system were to break down or security of high value livestock (though this alone would not be a good enough reason). Animal welfare was high on our list as we were keeping hens, breeding a rearing free range pigs for pork and later breeding alpacas. Obviously, the enterprise needs to be profitable that is to say supporting one agricultural wage which is about £16,000 – £18,000 per year and it must also be able to support the size of any permanent dwelling that is to be lived in the future. The requirements of any new agricultural development is for the financial and functional test to be proven over a three year development, therefore we could only apply in this instance for a temporary three year planning permission. The tests are less onerous than applying for permanent permission but are still very testing. As we were applying for a temporary dwelling we ended up going for a small wooden chalet, which we call the “Hut” but other types can be acceptable. The most common seem to be static caravans and other mobile homes. One of the other problems we had was convincing the council that we were genuine and really did want to work and live in the countryside. They seemed very suspicious of our intentions. It was difficult to convince them that we were not speculators trying to build a nice house in the countryside. Trying to prove your intentions can be a difficult thing but we basically got on with things and put our business plan into action. We spent a lot of money on fencing and housing, put up a poly-tunnel and bought livestock. Basically we started to put our business plan into action albeit on a part time basis. Both Neil and I were both still working full time at this point as well. Our application went into the council in July 2007. Council have targets to hit relating to application turn around which means the majority should be decided upon within eight weeks. We kept our fingers crossed!
The Long Slog
Ours was not one of those cases that went through in eight weeks. It took until two days before Christmas for our application to be finally refused. Over the previous five months there had been a mass of tooing and froing between our side and theirs. The council had employed “their expert” to assess our business plans. His job appeared to be to discredit our plan and concluded that we did not comply with the F & F test in anyway shape or form. We were all flabbergasted by his stance and assessment. Annex A states that “authorities should take a realistic approach to the level of profitability, taking account of the nature of the enterprise concerned”. To our minds he was clearly not doing this as his assessments were based on figures used for large automated farming concerns where one stockman can look after scores of animals. We were a free range smallholding with no mechanical equipment. These two types of business are poles apart and could not be assessed using the same method we thought. But he would not have it and was determined to stick to his rationale, and we to ours. He also tried to discredit NewLandOwners and Farrlacey Alpacas financial figures. He was not prepared to accept and of NLO’s arguments and had no previous experience or knowledge of any alpacas enterprise. Anyway, after a very frustrating five months we got the refusal we were expecting but immediately set about putting together our appeal. We were all convinced that the council were being totally unreasonable over lots of issues and that we had a good chance at appeal. I mean, they had even said in their refusal notice that nothing much was happening on site and that hardly any livestock could be seen. Hardly surprising as the planning officer had visited in December and half the livestock was in the barn and the rest was probably tucked away in their houses away from the foul weather we had been having. They’ll say anything to try and paint a bad picture. Heaton Planning set the ball rolling following the procedure set down. We ended up attending an Informal hearing which is basically a meeting at the council offices. The inspector chairs the hearing with both sides being able to speak and put their point across. I went with an army. There were two people from Heaton Planning, two from NewLandOwner, two from Farrlacey Alpacas and me. Across the tables were the Planning Officer and his expert and at the head the Planning Inspector. We all had our own part to play, each dealing with a specific area. Without the support of “my team” this would have been very intimidating as though it is called an “Informal Hearing” it followed a certain structure and the inspector was addressed as Sir. In our case, it also took a long time. We started at 10am, broke for lunch at 1pm and didn’t get to the site visit until about 3pm. At times things got very animated as each side tried to get their views across. We then all took the short drive over to the holding for the site visit. The inspector then walks around the whole site and if necessary asks any questions. It is important to have as much going on as possible. Actions speak louder than words and I feel that the inspector could see that all we had said as true, We were keeping hens and selling eggs, breeding pigs and growing vegetables, it was all there for him to see not just something that was written down on a piece of paper, we really were going it. After that it was all over, we just had the agonising wait for the inspector’s decision. To our surprise it took less than a week and we were overjoyed to get a YES. Finally, after nearly two years we had won. Victory is very sweet when you’ve had to work so hard to get it. That wasn’t quite the end of it as we still had to submit the exact “hut” details, grey water system and composting loo details. Our gas appliances needed to be installed by an approved installer and a gas certificate supplied. This all needed to be approved by building control. The approval also came with some conditions. Firstly, an Agricultural Tie, as expected, and a hedge cutting restriction for the road side hedge. The hedge just needs to stay a certain size so it restricts the view of our dwelling from the road. So we got there in the end, but let’s be clear it can be a long, frustrating and costly exercise. You need to be cool headed, resilient and a bit thick skinned but it can be done if you are realistic and determined.