• Repurposing farm land for new business ventures can help offset the risks of traditional agriculture, but how do you safely navigate potential bumps in the road?

    Fans of Clarkson’s Farm may have been following Jeremy Clarkson’s clashes with West Oxfordshire District Council as he attempts to breathe new life into ‘Diddly Squat’, his Cotswolds farm. In series two, the journalist-turned-farmer faced a protracted battle with the local authority over his scheme to turn a disused barn into a restaurant.

    More recently, the former Top Gear presenter has launched a planning appeal over rejected plans to expand his farm shop. It’s been a tough road for the nation’s most famous motorist.

    For rural land owners who are considering diversification opportunities, Clarkson’s setbacks may be disheartening. But beyond the gaze of camera crews, many farm owners are successfully repurposing their land and buildings.

    Innovative schemes include transforming farmland into wedding venues, glamping sites and self-storage facilities. Such ventures can be a boon for farmers facing unprecedented challenges, including soaring input costs, the effects of climate change and price pressure on farmers by retailers.

    Getting the green light

    If you are at the start of your farm evolution, commercial business consultants can offer analysis and advice on your diversification plans. As things progress, you may need specialist legal advice. The process of developing and building on rural land or making material changes in the use of land assets can be complicated by the need to obtain planning permission.

    So the first question to ask is: Do I actually need planning consent? If an activity falls within the legal definition of “agriculture” then you do not need consent to put existing land or buildings to that use. Some examples include viticulture and allotments. Some activities traditionally associated with the countryside, though, will nevertheless require consent, for example equestrian uses.

    If planning permission is needed, then a bewildering array of reports and surveys are often required to address the impact of the development. However, planning legislation recognises that it is not always appropriate to require farmers to go to such lengths when the building in question is essential to their agricultural enterprise.

    Therefore, certain types of development schemes benefit from pre-approved planning permissions, known as permitted development rights (PDRs). These rights can be relied upon to allow a development to go ahead without having to go through the full planning process.

    Know your (development) rights

    For development to support your existing agricultural business there are available PDRs, which vary slightly depending upon the size of the agricultural unit, to permit operations such as:

    • the erection, extension or alteration of agricultural buildings
    • excavation or engineering operations
    • new or replacement plant or machinery
    • new or replacement sewers, mains, pipes, cables or other apparatus
    • a new private way
    • the provision of a hard surface.

    In each case the development must be reasonably necessary for the purposes of agriculture within the agricultural unit and can still require prior approval from the council. As you might expect, local planning authorities won’t always agree with the farmer on whether the proposal is “reasonably necessary for the purposes of agriculture”. This can make for some interesting discussions and can result in appeals.

    There are also PDRs to support diversification away from agriculture. These include, for example, converting buildings into a dwelling or for certain commercial uses, such as shops, financial and professional services, restaurants and cafes, business, storage and distribution, hotels, assembly and leisure or to a school or nursery.

    These rights only apply in limited circumstances, though, and are also subject to prior approval by the council, so it is essential to consider and get advice on the precise details of what is proposed and where it is to happen.

    There are also certain exclusions from, and limits to, the availability of PDRs, which can be tricky to navigate. A good planning lawyer can advise you on your prospects of success and the best way to put forward your case.

    And if there’s one lesson to take away from Clarkson’s heroic diversification efforts: if at first you don’t succeed… you can always try again.

    If you need help putting in place the plans for the future that you envisage for you and your family, Brachers experienced Agriculture and Rural team can help.

    This article was first published in the April 2023 edition of South East Farmer.

    This content is correct at time of publication

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