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In the UK, every acre of land has a specific designated use, aptly known as a ‘use class’. This is essentially a label saying exactly what the land can be used for, such as residential buildings, businesses or agriculture. For one reason or another, a landowner may wish to change their property’s use class, a process referred to as a ‘change of use’.

Perhaps the most common change of use applications concern agricultural land. A farmer may want to convert old agricultural buildings into residences, or they may want to develop their land in order to better profit from what they have. This is all very reasonable, but as is often the case with major property improvements, local authorities can often stand in the way.

A local planning authority (LPA) will have a vested interest in keeping certain amounts of land for specific uses. This is particularly true of agricultural land, as LPAs want to make their contribution to keeping the UK farming industry running. As such there are a number of rules and regulations involved in change of use applications, with certain LPAs doing much more to stand in their way than others.

In order to use agricultural land for residential projects, you will need to apply for planning permission. Having an experienced local builder or architectural designer on hand can be a godsend here, as they should be familiar enough with local planning laws to advise you on your application. Keep in mind that this is a process which should never, ever be skipped over: even residential projects which fall within Permitted Development Rights still need an LPA’s approval in order to go forward on agricultural land.

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Constructing residential buildings on agricultural land

Before doing anything else, get this through your head: LPAs are very particular about the use of agricultural land. Any buildings or developments on designated agricultural property must be solely to do with agriculture - a farmer can keep horses in his field, but even riding them is out of the question if he doesn’t have permission from his council.

Most of the time the only way to create a residential property on agricultural land is to make a planning application. This will be required for any work which constitutes ‘development’, including any major structural alterations or even groundworks. 

While there are still Permitted Development Rights for agricultural land, they will not allow you to start building immediately. Even projects that fall under these rights will need to be approved by your LPA. 

Your council will need to consider elements like:

  • Siting
  • Noise 
  • Contamination
  • Flood risk
  • Design
  • Proximity to roads and other transport links

It is also important to pay close attention to what your Permitted Development Rights actually say. For example, you may have heard that it is permissible to construct or alter buildings on agricultural land provided you have more than five hectares. Unfortunately, this only applies to agricultural buildings, so residential work will still need permission.

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A slightly more cooperative rule is outlined in The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development)(England) Order of 2015. This states that agricultural land/ buildings can be switched to ‘Class Q’, which allows no more than 450 square feet to be converted to no more than three dwellings, again subject to approval. Naturally this rule does not apply to National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or Sites of Special Scientific Interest, as well as listed buildings or those in equestrian use. 

Unfortunately, for a building to qualify for this rule it must have been “used solely for an agricultural use, as part of an agricultural unit on 20th March 2013”, or at the point when it was most recently used if it was not being utilised on this date. If the building in question was purchased after this date, the owner will need to wait ten years before they can take advantage of this law.

So, exactly how do you go about building a residential property on agricultural land. The short answer is to contact your LPA right at the start, let them know what you want to do and ask about which hoops you will need to jump through. The resident planning officer should be able to advise you, though exactly how lenient an LPA is willing to be regarding change of use very much depends on the locale.

If applying for work under Permitted Development Rights, you should have an answer within 28 days. If the LPA decides that higher approval is needed, you may have to wait up to eight weeks.

Unfortunately, a successful change of use application is not something that happens over night. However, you can use this waiting time effectively by using it to plan and budget for your project and discuss it with your Pros. Should your project be approved you will have far less time to play with down the line, so use it while you can!