In this blog CLA Lee Murphy and Robert Dangerfield speak to CLA members in Wales and England about how they achieved success in their planning ambitions
Many rural landowners are looking to diversify their businesses by developing property for residential, commercial and other uses such as leisure and tourism. However, successfully achieving what you hope to demands careful planning and a determined approach in order to save time and money. Ryan Thomas of Llangorse, near Brecon and William Ashley of Monks Green Farm in Hertfordshire share some of the challenges they have faced and how they have dealt with them.
Young landowner Ryan Thomas from Llangorse, near Brecon, has inherited all the land-management business-sense of his father and grandfather – and shrewdly manages the business along with his business-partner, Ian Blair. A farm of 450 acres put down to sheep and arable - in the Brecon Beacons – is enhanced by a highly successful Multi-Activity Centre, a honeypot attraction attracting thousands of tourists to the area each year. The centre boasts an extensive indoor climbing facility, outdoor adventure course, equestrian centre, two self-catering bunkhouses, and an adjoining campsite offering spectacular views over nearby Llangorse Lake.
The activity centre and associated businesses employ 20 full-time staff and a further 15 part-time staff in the peak-season. All are employed from within the local area. With many young people employed within the business, Ryan is all too aware of the need for affordable housing in the area.
“Housing is a real problem in the area” Ryan explains. “House prices are high and rents are unaffordable for young people looking to live and work in the area.”
Around 10 years ago, Ryan’s grandfather developed several redundant farm buildings into eight self-contained two-bedroom properties. The emphasis was on creating small and affordable properties exclusively for people working in the area who would otherwise find it difficult to remain living locally.
“All eight units are rented at below-market prices – and tenants save between £500 and £1,000 a year on household bills” says Ryan. Private water and sewage is supplied to the properties at no cost to the tenants, and each unit is designed to be very energy efficient with several units using ground-source heating. As well as employees of Ryan’s other businesses, occupiers of the properties include carers, nursery-workers, teaching assistants, farm workers and a vet.
“However, it was our proposal to build a further five residential dwellings next to four existing barn conversions that has us frustrated” says Ryan. The proposals sought to develop a courtyard of five detached two-bedroom ‘eco-homes’ – energy efficiency properties with an emphasis on low running costs and affordable rents. The proposed site is a disused farm yard. At one end is an old barn of concrete block construction; the rest of the site is made up of uneven concrete and rough land. “It’s a brown-field site in need of a better use” Ryan observes.
Even so, when it came to obtaining planning permission for the development it was discovered that three of the proposed five properties (60%) would fall outside of the village development boundary. As such, the site was treated as a ‘rural exception site’. The planners stipulated that three of the properties must be treated as ‘affordable housing units’ and handed over to a Registered Social Landlord (RSL), or housing association, at a nominal price set by Welsh Government. This killed the project. “We can’t build them for the price they dictate” Ryan explains.
In Wales there are relatively few RSL’s and they are focused mainly on urban areas. For Ryan, losing control of an area of land, which has been in the same family for generations was not an option. “We even looked at becoming an RSL ourselves, but the complexity and bureaucracy to do this in Wales makes it prohibitive for small rural diversified businesses like ourselves.”
Ryan explained that they would prefer to manage the properties themselves, much like they are already doing with existing properties, and would be happy to accept controls on the level of rent that could be charged. “This approach is acceptable to Welsh Government and is in line with their affordable housing policy” Ryan explains. “However, the independent Brecon Beacons National Park authority has their own policy, and they will only allow the properties to be managed by a housing association (RSL) or registered charity” Ryan continues. “And then there’s Powys County Council, who are responsible for affordable housing provision in the area, who can have a different view again”.
New development projects are always challenging in a national park, but as Ryan indicates, where opportunities exist, they should be exploited for everyone’s benefit. According to Welsh Government’s most recent figures, the county of Powys had the lowest volume of house completions in Wales last year. And of the 5,500 new privately-built dwellings in Wales completed last year, 72 per cent have been larger 3 and 4 (or more) bedroom properties. “Hardly affordable,” Ryan observes.
“Our difficulties have been not only been the vagaries of the planning process – but severe delays. We’ve spent five years and spent over £25,000 on this project already. A particular frustration for us has been the absence of joined-up strategic thinking between the Welsh Government, national park authority and county council.”
Planning in England: William Ashley, Monks Green Farm, Hertfordshire
Monks Green Farm is set in 240 acres of Hertfordshire and has been farmed by the Ashley family since 1959. Over time the farm has specialised in poultry, beef, pigs, sheep and arable. Today it is still used to graze sheep although its main function is hay production for Newmarket stables.
The farm is owned and managed by William Ashley who was finding that with modern farming methods, traditional agriculture for the small farmer was proving to no longer be sustainable. Barns which were once erected for livestock, some as far back as 50 years ago, became redundant and William saw no other option but to generate a rental income through non-farming activities.
Monks Green Farm first opened up its barn doors to non-agricultural businesses 30 years ago when hay made way for commercial storage. Little did William know then just how much this need for change would help map the future of the farm as these barns are now the newest residential conversions – made possible by the introduction of additions to the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO) in 2013. These new permitted development rights for the change of use of farm buildings to other uses resulted from a long lobbying campaign by the CLA.
The farm’s first major development of 12 live/work properties came prior to the GPDO changes. In 2011 William took the decision to convert three poultry sheds and planning permission was granted. However, this project had its fair share of challenges. In 2012 the development was halted due to planning hurdles and were it not for the local planning authority’s own solicitor sourcing case law, the whole £2.2m project could have been in jeopardy along with the initial investment of £500,000.
With the cluster of live/work properties finally established William turned his attention to other barns and farm properties that could be converted. To do so, he utilised the introduction of permitted development rights (PDRs) for converting agricultural buildings to residential, known as Class MB, and later known as Class Q. These projects also had their challenges and planning refusals.
Overall the diversification projects at Monks Green Farm have created new businesses and enterprises in the rural economy. They have created new employment opportunities and supported the agricultural business at the farm. All of the developments undertaken by William have come with significant planning hurdles but his tenacity and determination to take the projects forward has been key to his eventual success.
Readers should be aware that Wales and England have largely separate planning systems for both policy and regulation. If you are in any doubt about which system applies to your land, and for up to date information, please contact your regional CLA office before commencing any development.