Image: Lizzie Orme
Property developer, architect and presenter of Channel 4’s The Restoration Man, George Clarke, discusses challenges faced by those wanting to create a home in the countryside
In my humble view what makes Britain great is our history. We have such an incredible heritage that it is literally the foundation stone of everything we design and build today. I’m always conscious that what we build today is the history of tomorrow.
In 2014 it was recorded as being the first year, in the history of mankind, that throughout the world more people would live in our cities than live in the countryside. For millions of years we have been rural dwellers, but now the majority of the planet are town and city dwellers. Before the Industrial Age we were, in effect, a nation of farmers. Not anymore.
As the population grows at a rapid pace, combined with the lack of homes being built in rural areas, it is no surprise that the next generation are being lured away from the countryside to the city where there is a greater chance (they say) of housing and employment. This means the countryside has to change.
To be clear, I absolutely love our countryside and I don’t think for one second that we should be building millions of ‘noddy-box’ homes across our green belt, but surely we cannot be against all rural housing development, while at the same time complaining that our children have no chance of getting onto the property ladder.
Unfortunately, we are a nation of ‘nimby’s’ (Not In My Back Yard) and we need to ask ourselves why? ‘Nimbyism’ is rife for three main reasons. The first is ‘over-protection’ and people simply not wanting any change whatsoever. The second is that a lot of people believe that the look and quality of homes being designed and the planning of the estates being created simply isn’t good enough or affordable enough for those who need homes most. And the third, is that people simply don’t like the idea that a major house builder is making profits from the development of land around them and building ‘fancy luxury homes’ that people don’t necessarily like. I’m sure there are many more reasons you could add to the list why you yourself would be against housing development and the arguments could continue, but I’m sure the one thing we can agree on is that the system isn’t working. In rural areas we need to build better, more beautiful, sensitively designed homes that are affordable, truly sustainable and can stand the test of time to create harmonious communities. They also need super high speed broadband services that enable innovative new businesses to be set up in rural areas creating jobs and investment where people want to stay. But, none of these things are really happening so there needs to be a cultural change.
Just take our attitude to agricultural buildings being converted to residential use. The conversion of redundant farm buildings into homes, where there is a clear need for housing, seems completely obvious to me. But, I see so many planning applications refused because of terrible legislation and poor development plans. Some planning authorities only allow agricultural buildings to be converted if they are used for holiday lets and tourism (which I appreciate brings money into their area), but what about permanent homes for local people and their families who bring so much to the local community 365 days of the year and not just those who arrive during school holidays?
Converting agricultural buildings into homes was meant to be easier with the introduction of Class MB permitted development rights (PDRs) introduced in April 2014, but confusing legislation is leaving farmers frustrated. It promised to give farmers additional income or housing for family and workers, boost housing stock and create rural jobs. But, even though central government set the legislation, the associated guidance gave too much discretion to local authorities to turn applications down. For me this is a classic case of the planning system looking for reasons to refuse applications rather than looking for positive reasons to grant them!
In 2015 guidance on permitted development rights has been strengthened, but still only one in three applications for abandoned barns to be converted into homes has been approved. The guidance states that Local Authorities “should apply a reasonable ordinary dictionary meaning to the words ‘impractical’ and ‘undesirable’ in making any judgment”. Impractical reflects that the location and siting would “not be sensible or realistic”, and undesirable reflects that it would be “harmful or objectionable”. I have to say that I have no idea what any of this means. Most of the conversion projects I have had the privilege of being part of in making Restoration Man could easily be deemed “impractical and undesirable”, but 99% of them have been transformed into the most beautiful homes. Therefore the legislation needs a lot more work or common sense applied!
If you are thinking of applying to convert a building from agricultural to residential under Class MB then ensure you do the following. Employ the most experienced professional team who have local experience of making these applications. Do your research properly and look at all previous and current applications that have been made to your council under Class MB. You need to be strategic and avoid making the mistakes of those schemes that have been refused before you. Make sure your design is the very best it can be and crafted in the most sensitive way possible, not only in regard to the old building itself, but to the wider context. Make sure you’ve given all the information required by the council to the very highest standard. Poor applications with a lack of information makes life very easy for a council to refuse. And do a lot of work with your neighbours. If you keep your neighbours and local residents fully informed of what you are doing and why you are doing the conversion, it will make your life a lot easier.
People are very passionate about their local area and the historic buildings that give it the character they have become used to for many years. If you’re thinking of turning an old agricultural building into a home then please give the building the sensitive conversion it deserves. It will go a long way to gaining the planning approval you need. Good luck!
For more tips and advice from George, check out his website at www.georgeclarke.com