Changes to planning policy could drive rural growth

Rural planning policy has the potential to significantly drive economic growth, but it simply isn’t working effectively and budget cuts are not going to help.

According to speakers at the British Institute of Agricultural Consultants (BIAC) conference on Thursday (5 October), there are a number of challenges in rural development – but with the right modifications to planning practice the sector could really drive forward.

“I do believe the Government is genuine in its intention to support the countryside,” said Steve Ingram, president of the Planning Officers’ Society. “However, I’m not sure the tools it is using are the right ones.”

Affordable housing is the biggest issue, with house prices now 7.6 times the average wage in rural areas, against 6.5 in urban areas. Although the Government introduced permitted development rights to make it easier for landowners to convert redundant farm buildings into residential or commercial use, the reality is that the process is so restrictive that few developments are going ahead.

“Planning barriers put people off investment,” explained Ross Murray, president of the Country, Land and Business Association. Four-fifths of landowners want to invest more in rural development, but poor understanding of rural needs among planning departments is a real concern. “Too often planning is a triumph of process over outcome.”

Communication – between landowners, planning officers, and tenants – is the key to successful development, added George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association. Setting out a strategy and working together to achieve mutual goals will lead to a vibrant, productive countryside, benefiting all parties.

However, the greatest threat to positive change is the financial pressure facing local planning authorities, according to Paul Jackson, head of planning at Test Valley Borough Council. From 2019 local planning authorities will not receive any government funding, so will have to finance themselves. “That impacts on the service we can provide – you can’t do this job without people.”

Fortunately, there are some improvements in the pipeline. Following the recent Rural Planning Review, the Government is focusing on implementing new guidance to facilitate appropriate development. Planning fees will increase by 20% by the end of 2017, ring-fenced for planning departments, explained Steve Quartermain, chief planner at the Department for Communities and Local Government. New guidance will benefit development of farm shops, polytunnels and reservoirs, while a review of permitted development rights should make it easier for conversion of farm buildings, he added.

Attracting a sell-out crowd of 170 delegates, the conference provided an important platform for council planners and rural consultants to share best practice and discuss ways to improve the planning process, said Mike Greetham, chief executive of BIAC. “We are very active in government lobbying and have to ensure that our members remain at the cutting edge of industry developments. The nation needs more housing and economic growth: Farmers are in an ideal situation to provide this and we are working to help them deliver it.”

For more information contact the BIAC head office on 01275 375559.