RURAL business groups are celebrating a major victory after the Government announced a shake-up of planning rules that will allow disused barns to be converted into offices and other business premises without planning permission.
The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) said the change will cut red tape and deliver a huge boost to farmers and other rural businesses as the economy continues to flat-line.
Countryside campaigners however, warned the Government may inadvertently be “unleashing on the countryside a wave of unsightly ‘barns’ that are intended to become houses at a later date”.
But Ministers insisted there will be sufficient safeguards to protect the countryside from unwanted development.
Explaining the change, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles said: “We want to promote the use of brownfield land to assist regeneration, and get empty and under-used buildings back into productive use.”
Mr Pickles said the new policy followed recommendations from a review by the TV personality Mary Portas, which concluded that it should be made easier to change the use of a building without wading through unnecessary red tape.
“We agree,” Mr Pickles said. “We are therefore increasing the scope of permitted development rights in order to facilitate growth.
“In order to help promote rural prosperity and job creation, agricultural buildings will be able to convert to a range of other uses – but excluding residential dwellings.
“There will be a size restriction, and for conversions above a set size, a ‘prior approval’ process will be put in place to guard against unacceptable impacts, such as transport and noise.”
Currently planning permission must be granted by the local council every time someone wants to put an old farm building to a different business use.
The CLA has been campaigning for a change to the existing planning rules for more than a decade.
CLA North regional director Dorothy Fairburn said: “This is a great victory.
“It means farmers and landowners can use their old agricultural buildings for new purposes without having to go through the difficult and costly full planning application process.
“This change will help to underpin farming businesses and boost the rural economy in the North by assisting in the creation of new jobs and businesses at a time when they are greatly needed.”
But the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) said it was alarmed that the new rules will be introduced alongside separate changes that will make it easier for empty office blocks to be converted into homes.
It warned that unscrupulous farmers may start erecting barns and then converting them into offices – before leaving them empty for sufficient period that they could be sold off as homes.
Paul Miner, senior planning campaigner for CPRE, said: “We are concerned that old farm buildings could be converted in completely inappropriate locations, such as on narrow country lanes with poor access, and that the changes could be exploited by unscrupulous landowners to erect so-called ‘farm buildings’ which then become an office, and then a house without any planning oversight.
“This would be a clear break with established planning controls over sporadic development in the countryside.”