Avoid missing out on rural planning opportunities

opportunities for diversifying farming businesses Thrings lawyers

The opportunities for diversifying farming businesses continue to expand with new ventures flourishing across the British countryside.

Whether the plan is to create a new farm shop or restaurant, utilise underused land for renewable energy generation or as a campsite, or even to build new housing, there are plenty of ways for farmers and landowners to turn a profit.

But as with every new venture, it isn’t always that simple. The Thrings Planning and Environment team run through some of the key factors to consider if you want your project to be a success.

Biodiversity Net Gain

Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is the net increase in the different organisms – plants, animals, insects and microorganisms – that live in the natural world after a development has taken place.

Farmers have the opportunity to create an income by using land to generate “biodiversity credits” which would be purchased by housebuilders as an off-site alternative to meet the requirements of their developments.

Long awaited government plans for the introduction of a 10% BNG increase for any new housing, commercial and infrastructure development have been postponed again, with the date moved from November 2023 to January 2024. Exceptions include small sites, which will be subject to requirements from April 2024, and nationally significant infrastructure projects from 2025.

Alongside the deferment, the government made the commitment to publish all guidance and regulations by the end of November.

The introduction of BNG regulations for developments will make it more costly for developers to deliver new sites, which has the impact to reduce the profit made by farmers or landowners when selling their land. Those that are producing credits for developers will have a very rigid set of restrictions they will need to follow in order to qualify their land for the scheme in the long term.

Nutrient Neutrality

The condition of many important and sensitive habitats across the country are being negatively impacted by pollution from excess nutrients – predominantly nitrates and phosphates - often considered to be the result of nearby sewage works or intensive agricultural activities.

Presently, under the Habitats Regulations, developers wanting to build houses nearby certain protected sites are required to demonstrate that the development is ‘nutrient neutral’– so the impacts of their development will not harm a protected site – but this has become a barrier to delivery for delivering new homes in rural areas.

Earlier this summer, the House of Lords blocked an attempt by the government to significantly loosen the existing rules, with the government in turn pledging to bring forward new legislation at the first available opportunity.

It is expected that this could completely remove nutrient neutrality requirements from housebuilding altogether, but while there are a number of routes by which the government could look to do this, there will no doubt be the potential for such actions to face legal challenge.

The easing of nutrient neutrality rules has the potential to be a double-edged sword for landowners. On one hand, the change would allow unused land that would otherwise be inappropriate for development, to become available, but on the other hand, this could be a reduction in revenue for those farmers that utilise land to generate nutrient credits that developers use to offset their sites.

An updated NPPF?

Long awaited substantive changes to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) following a wide-ranging consultation launched last December have yet to materialise – but could potentially land soon.

Local housing targets are expected to be weakened under new reforms and changes are expected to be made to the five-year land supply, the metric by which Local Planning Authorities are required to demonstrate a continued supply of housing stock, with the suggestion it could possibly be removed altogether.

Despite publicised claims that an updated NPPF would be published in the Autumn, the only changes since 2021 came in the form of streamlining planning rules around onshore wind projects, published in September.

This could be problematic for farmers wanting to sell unused land for housing development as a reduction in requirements for new housing would put less pressure on local planning authorities to approve new developments on greenfield sites in order to meet their targets.

Extensions to permitted development rights

Over the summer, the government has made a range of announcements in relation to changes and extensions to Permitted Development (PD) rights.

Announcements from the Department for Levelling-up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) in July confirmed a consultation would take place on how PD rights could better support existing rural landowners to build “upwards and outwards” – including proposed changes to the MA, Q and R classes.

Further announcements have also seen the extending of PD rights that would allow increased usage of land for temporary camping and filming.

Unlike the previous sections. this will obviously be welcomed by farmers and landowners as an opportunity to diversify, in some cases without a great need for investment.

Thrings’ Planning and Environment lawyers have extensive experience in navigating complex local and national planning policy legislation and has successfully supported commercial and residential applications through the approval and appeal processes. To find out more and for advice on your development proposals, including how to address enforcement notices, please do get in touch.

Thrings’ renowned Agriculture Seminar returns on Friday, 10 November with the firm’s agriculture, planning and development experts discussing the biggest issues for the rural sector as part of this year’s topic “The Future of Farming”. To find out more and to book your place, visit here.

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