Specialism
Project type
Insights
Tools

How to get planning permission on agricultural land [2024 update]

From barn conversions to rural worker housing, farm structures to major developments of homes, here's our complete guide for anyone aiming to get consent to build on agricultural land

10 January 2024
6 minutes read
Simple and modest pale blue bungalow with a matching separate garage that has obtained an agricultural planning permission in the middle of a beautiful green expanse with large rolling mountains and dark green forest in the background

Whether you are out to find agricultural land, bulk up your existing farm site, build rural worker housing or repurpose your existing agricultural buildings, we’ve got you covered. What you will learn through this blog post is fundamental to understanding how getting planning permission on agricultural land really works.

Smart developers are always looking to get the most out of their investments, and buying land at a low price is the easiest way to save when embarking on a building project.

But there is also a massive price disparity between land that has planning permission and land that doesn’t, especially in an agricultural setting. The former can be 50 times the cost of the latter. 

For this reason, if you’re considering purchasing land without planning permission, you want to make sure that an actual potential for adding value exists. Depending on what you want to accomplish, the planning process could be tricky. It’s important to understand what this might entail, so you can determine whether the risk of your investment is worth it.

We’ve put together this guide to help you understand the hurdles that a planning application for development on agricultural land might come across.

Let’s take a look in detail.

Initial considerations for building on agricultural land

Many unwary investors have been duped by schemes that offer agricultural land with claims of future residential development potential.

We see advertisements like these all the time: they often mention all of the things you would need to know if you were actually able to build there – for instance, the distance from local schools – and sometimes even show access roads that don't exist. So, what’s the catch?

Even when there is very little chance that the land can be converted into a residential development, it can be convincingly marketed as an opportunity.

We should say right now that getting planning permission on agricultural land is very difficult. So if you’re looking at one of these sites, you want to make sure that you’re not about to waste your money. 

For some people, building on agricultural land is a way to make extra cash, while for others, agriculture is a genuine way of life.

For instance, farmers may need to further develop their existing farmland to sustain their lifestyle and livestock, or to generate extra income. But the rules around what can be done are strict, including the permitted development rights for farms.

Of course, protecting our country’s environment is incredibly important, especially in the face of climate change. Government guidance seeks to protect the “best and most versatile” agricultural land from significant, inappropriate or unsustainable development proposals, and to promote the sustainable management of all soils. 

However, in some circumstances, there are valid reasons for seeking permission on agricultural land. This includes getting planning permission for agricultural purposes and for rural worker housing, and for exploring the change of use of existing buildings. 

In what follows, we will clarify these reasons to help you better understand the process for securing planning permission on agricultural land.

Bright green hay mowing tractor working a piece of agricultural land in the uk on a bright and sunny day

What is agricultural land?

This is land that has been designated as being solely for the purpose of:

  • Rearing livestock
  • Crop production 
  • Other related industries

In Our Green Future, the government’s 25-year plan to improve the environment, land management strategies seek to protect “the best” agricultural land. This serves both environmental and economic purposes.  

Although the agricultural sector of our economy has shrunk significantly over the last hundred years, there is still a need for domestic production. Any further erosion of this will only leave us even more susceptible to shortages and increasing prices. 

When do I need planning permission on agricultural land?

If you own agricultural land, there are three main reasons why you would need planning permission:

  • Development for agricultural purposes
  • Development for rural worker housing; and
  • Changing the way that you use the land or buildings from agriculture to something else.

If you want to make changes like these, then you must seek the help of a professional, to put yourself on track toward a successful application. 

Modern development on agricultural land of a residential dwelling spread and interlocked barn shaped units showcasing the natural barn materials as well as the modern with glass units that brightly light the residence during the twilight hour and incoming storm

Getting planning permission for agricultural reasons

Under the National Planning Policy Framework, one of the stated exceptions to Green Belt policy is building for agriculture and forestry. In Green Belt settings, this provides one clear route forward for planning proposals that are genuinely intended to serve an agricultural purpose. 

We should note that the definition of previously developed land – another Green Belt policy exception – excludes land that was last occupied by agricultural or forestry buildings. So, if you’re pursuing agricultural development in the Green Belt, it genuinely has to be for the purposes of agriculture: old agricultural buildings don’t provide a strong route forward for, say, new housing development. 

It’s also important to stress that meeting a policy exception is just the first step in crafting a planning argument – by no means does it mean that approval is guaranteed. A number of other considerations, such as access, biodiversity/ecology impacts, bulk and materials, and visual impacts on the openness of the Green Belt (if you’re in the Green Belt) will still have to be addressed in the proposal. 

Additionally, your local authority may have metrics in place for understanding what constitutes a valid agricultural purpose. In South Bucks District Council, for instance, an existing agricultural need must be established for further agricultural development on site to be considered. They make it simple: “Agricultural buildings need to be reasonably required for the purposes of agriculture.”

This isn’t something that should be difficult to prove if you are, in fact, a farmer on an active farm site. But if you’re a developer or first-time land buyer trying to understand whether you could take advantage of an auction house’s flashy listing, it’s important to have a realistic sense of what can and what can’t be done. 

The National Planning Policy Framework both protects agricultural land and acknowledges its economic function. NPPF Paragraph 174 (2021) states that planning policies and decisions should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by recognising the wider benefits from natural capital and ecosystem services, including the economic and other benefits of the “best and most versatile agricultural land.” 

This is defined as land in grades 1, 2 and 3a of the Agricultural Land Classification, a metric used by Natural England and the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs to promote a standard assessment of land quality in planning decision-making. 

While “the development and diversification of agricultural and other land-based rural businesses” is supported in Paragraph 84 of the NPPF, policy also takes land quality into account. Where significant development of agricultural land is demonstrated to be necessary, for instance, areas of poorer quality land should be preferred to those of a higher quality. 

Whether in the Green Belt or not, planning policy acknowledges that some agricultural development is necessary in order to support a prosperous rural economy. Your proposal just needs to effectively demonstrate that this is what it actually seeks to do. 

Getting planning permission for rural worker housing

In rural areas both within and outside the Green Belt, national policy states that planning policies and decisions should be responsive to local circumstances and support housing development that reflects local needs. 

One way of accomplishing this is through NPPF Paragraph 80(a), commonly referred to as the rural worker exception. It states that planning policies and decisions should avoid the development of isolated homes in the countryside unless (among other things) there is an essential need for a rural worker, including those taking majority control of a farm business, to live permanently at or near their place of work in the countryside. 

Again, demonstrating this is not necessarily something that should be difficult if you’re truly operating a farm site that requires constant attention – for instance, if livestock need 24/7 care or specific crops are cultivated that need tending throughout the night. A rural worker could also need to live on-site for security reasons – establishing the safety of both the farm and themselves. 

It could be the case that long working hours or low availability of nearby housing mean that employees are otherwise bound to lengthy, late-night commutes. These could make it difficult for farmers to retain necessary workers. 

If you’re able to craft a compelling argument around the reason why rural worker housing is essential on your site, this can provide a clear route forward for establishing more building footprint. However, it’s again important to note that need isn’t the only factor you’ll have to address: all of the other material planning considerations that underscore any planning application still apply. 

Apply for temporary planning permission

Beyond the Paragraph 80(a) exception, another strategy is to apply for planning permission for a temporary dwelling. This will allow you to live in a caravan or mobile home for up to five years while you establish that you do need to live on the land. 

You will still need to show that the business is viable and that there is a genuine need for you to be sleeping on-site. 

But remember this: you sometimes have five years in your temporary accommodation before you need to think about getting the permanent home building completed. This is the point where you will need to submit the full application for a home and back up your previous claim that you are required on-site to run your agricultural business with the evidence of the past few years.

And if you’re looking to erect, say, an agricultural barn for livestock use now but with the view of potentially converting it into a residence later down the line, remember that this ancillary use often needs significant justification as well. 

Situations where a change of use might be possible

Of course, for savvy developers, part of the draw of these agricultural policy allowances is the question of how agricultural land use could offer a gateway to a different kind of development sometime down the line. 

A flagship example of this is the offering of Class Q permitted development rights, which allow for the conversion of an existing but disused barn into residential use. Class R permitted development rights further open up the possibility of a change of use – into such options as a business, holiday let or leisure space. 

To accomplish either, you are required to submit a prior approval application in order to regularise your barn conversion, ensuring that it is both legal and acceptable by the council. The purpose of a prior approval application is to ensure that it does in fact fall within Class Q or R permitted development rights.

Even though you are not subject to all of the same considerations as a full planning application, the application process is still detailed. You will need to submit floor plans, and you will need to demonstrate that the proposal complies with minimum space standards. 

Additional standards apply to Class Q barn conversions. Under the permitted development legislation, you can convert your barn into the following:

  • Up to 3 larger homes with a maximum of 465 square metres; or
  • Up to 5 smaller homes, each no larger than 100 square metres; or 
  • A mix of both, within a total of no more than five dwellings, of which no more than three may be larger homes. 

In some instances, you might need full planning permission to do this – for instance, if your barn sits within an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), a conservation area, a National Park, a site of special scientific interest, the Broads, a National Park or a World Heritage Site. 

And in others, Class Q barn conversions can allow you a route to a more flexible adaptation of your existing agricultural building. 

Purchasing agricultural land

There are still some areas where you can buy agricultural land with the hope that it will turn into a development opportunity and provide a return on your investment.

But beware: don’t think that this is an effortless way to get rich.

The process is fraught with risk and you can lose a lot of money. Be sceptical about any schemes that promise the earth. You need to do a lot of the groundwork yourself to ensure that you have a genuine opportunity.

Here are some initial actions that you can take prior to applying for planning permission.

Approach the owner

When it comes to the deal itself, one strategy is to facilitate a purchase agreement that is subject to planning permission successfully being granted for your desired development.

This might require you to pay a little upfront to keep the deal exclusive. But, it ensures that you don’t complete the purchase until the necessary permission is secured. This significantly minimises the risk that you take on.

And if there is no forthcoming permission, and therefore no development, then you don’t buy – just walk away.

Increase your chances

None of this is easy, and there is certainly no guarantee of success, but if you get the right advice from the outset and work with a planning consultant and architect who specialise not only in barn conversions but also in agricultural properties, then you stand a much better chance of submitting a successful application.

Architects are worth their weight in gold on tricky projects like this, so look out for one who knows their stuff and is able to put you in the best position possible.

Applying for planning permission on agricultural land

The process for this is fairly similar to any planning application. You must consider the application before having plans drawn up to submit to the relevant local authority.

Get to know the planning officer

As local authorities may have more than one planning officer, some may specialise in planning permission on agricultural land, particularly in parts of the county where this type of land classification is prevalent.

It is a good idea to meet the relevant officer beforehand to increase your chances of a successful application. Developing a relationship with them will help:

  • You to understand what they are looking for
  • Them to understand what you are trying to achieve

A helpful planning officer will give you ideas and suggestions that will help your planning permission application go through, so time spent with them can be extremely valuable in the long run.

Here’s the scary part: planning officers will find it easier to say ‘no’ than to say ‘yes,’ but if you communicate with them and find out what they are looking for, then your chances of a ‘yes’ improve markedly.

Delve into the details

In general, you need to think about all of the details that will comprise your planning application. This includes things like:

  • Access to the buildings
  • The exact position of the buildings
  • The size of the buildings
  • How they fit with the location and setting
  • If they impact the neighbours

And don’t forget that your planning application should be detailed enough to cover any lingering doubts the planning authority might have. Don’t leave anything to chance – be sure to cover every detail of your application to make your case as strong as it can be.

Expect a consultation period

When seeking planning permission on agricultural land, a consultation will be initiated that is necessary for making the final decision. The planning authority will consult with certain people to see if they have any ideas about or objections to your proposal. These people include:

  • Local councils
  • Your neighbours
  • Highway engineers
  • Environmental health officers
  • Other specialists if needed (tree officers, conservation officers, archaeologists etc.)

The result of all of these consultations will be factored into the final decision. This helps the planning authority assess the full impact of your planning application before letting you know what they have decided. The right developments must take all of these factors into account.

Remember that the integrity of the agricultural land in this country is their primary concern.

Receiving a refusal letter

In truth, not every planning application will be successful, but if you listen to the advice from the planning authority you can learn from this. It may be that the proposal is refused outright, or that they make recommendations to improve the application – with a chance of success on reapplication. 

You sometimes have to take the planning refusal on the chin and start again, but don’t turn it into an argument or become disheartened. You can learn from a refusal and use the information for your next application – whether it is on this project or another.

In short, getting planning permission on agricultural land isn’t easy, which is why you need the help of a professional to guide you through the process. You should speak to a professional who has experience in agricultural development and who will set you on the right path.

Who should I speak to?

The first step is to speak to a specialist planning consultant who understands the regulations surrounding agricultural land so you can make an application that works. 

As there are slightly different processes in the various parts of the country, choose someone who has worked in your area. An experienced planning consultant will help you navigate the strict rules meant to protect the way that our countryside looks. What’s more, you need to work with someone who will help you obtain a high ROI with the planning process.

By now you’ll have realised that a specialist planning consultant can help you formulate a viable plan for the planning application process. You don’t want to spend time and money just to get an immediate ‘no’ from the planning authority, so work with a firm that has an extensive track record of delivering successful development solutions on agricultural land to ensure your application is well-thought-out and can stand up to scrutiny.

Are there ways I can get around planning applications?

Certain laws allow you to construct buildings without getting planning permission on agricultural land. But, if you are hoping to use that to get a house, you are taking a huge risk.

You need a minimum of five hectares to put up a barn under permitted development. And, if you put up a building on the land and live in it and this is undiscovered for a certain amount of time, then you need to prove your permanence in order to eventually gain the right to live there.

With the changing legislation around enforcement periods, from 25 April 2024, you will need to demonstrate 10 years of consistent use regardless of the situation you’re in – whether you’ve put up a caravan or a building on the agricultural land.

In these instances, you can then make an application for a Certificate of Lawfulness and, if it works out, you can earn the right to stay there.

A word of caution: this is a high-risk strategy and not one that we recommend. You could be there for nine years and 363 days before someone complains, and you would end up having to tear the whole thing down – possibly with a lengthy and expensive legal process to boot. It is far better to stick to the rules and make an application in line with the regulations.

Loosening up of the regulations? Jeremy Clarkson and the 2023 consultations

In early 2023, the second series of Clarkson's Farm brought unexpected attention to the workings of the planning system in rural areas. The show follows TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson's attempt to turn a farm he owns into a viable business, and the second season focused on his interactions with the local planning department, inevitably shown as a deeply frustrating affair. Clarkson's main scheme in that series was to turn disused buildings into a restaurant.

While the media was still very much captivated by all of this, the government started to announce plans to make it easier for farmers to diversify their businesses and convert redundant buildings to new uses. Of course, the government insisted this had nothing to do with Clarkson.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there will be a consultation looking at ways permitted development rights can be used to make it easier for farms to stay in business by running their own shops and, yes, possibly restaurants. At the same time, the government will be asking for opinions on expanding permitted development from agricultural buildings to homes beyond the current Class Q rules.

Also being promised is a push for more affordable rural homes.

All in all, it seems like an acknowledgement that the current arrangements are too restrictive - that the desire to protect the countryside is coming at the expense of throttling parts of the rural economy.

How Urbanist Architecture can help you 

Urbanist Architecture is a London-based architecture and planning practice with offices in Greenwich and Belgravia. With a dedicated focus on proven design and planning strategies, we help homeowners, landowners and developers achieve ROI-focused results.

If you would like us to help you with your project using agricultural land, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Claudia Stephens, Planner at Urbanist Architecture
AUTHOR

Claudia Stephens

Claudia is our planner, specialising in green belt developments and other complex planning applications. She provides regulatory research and evidence-based advice, negotiates with local authority planning departments, and keeps us informed of the latest legislation and government guidance.

Send me a message
Or call me on
020 3793 7878

Write us a message

We look forward to learning how we can help you. Simply fill in the form below and someone on our team will respond to you at the earliest opportunity.

Have you considered how much the construction will cost?

Urbanist Architecture is committed to protecting your privacy, and we'll only use your information to deliver the services you requested. For more information, please review our privacy policy.

Some fields are incorrect.

Read next

The latest news, updates and expert views for ambitious, high-achieving and purpose-driven homeowners and property entrepreneurs.

Read next

The latest news, updates and expert views for ambitious, high-achieving and purpose-driven homeowners and property entrepreneurs.

Image cover for the article: Simple and modest pale blue bungalow with a matching separate garage that has obtained an agricultural planning permission in the middle of a beautiful green expanse with large rolling mountains and dark green forest in the background
First-time developer? Architect Robin Callister's essential guide
Read more
Image cover for the article: Simple and modest pale blue bungalow with a matching separate garage that has obtained an agricultural planning permission in the middle of a beautiful green expanse with large rolling mountains and dark green forest in the background
Addressing Britain’s housing crisis and the future of sustainable design: Interview with Ufuk Bahar
Read more
Image cover for the article: Simple and modest pale blue bungalow with a matching separate garage that has obtained an agricultural planning permission in the middle of a beautiful green expanse with large rolling mountains and dark green forest in the background
Designing modern care homes and revolutionising retirement living
Read more
Image cover for the article: Simple and modest pale blue bungalow with a matching separate garage that has obtained an agricultural planning permission in the middle of a beautiful green expanse with large rolling mountains and dark green forest in the background
10% biodiversity net gain: Planning requirements for new homes [2024 Update]
Read more
Image cover for the article: Simple and modest pale blue bungalow with a matching separate garage that has obtained an agricultural planning permission in the middle of a beautiful green expanse with large rolling mountains and dark green forest in the background
Extending buildings upwards: Permitted development rights for upward extensions [2024 update]
Read more
Image cover for the article: Simple and modest pale blue bungalow with a matching separate garage that has obtained an agricultural planning permission in the middle of a beautiful green expanse with large rolling mountains and dark green forest in the background
Your 13-point checklist to buying off-plan properties as an investment
Read more
Image cover for the article: Simple and modest pale blue bungalow with a matching separate garage that has obtained an agricultural planning permission in the middle of a beautiful green expanse with large rolling mountains and dark green forest in the background
5 fantastic ways to design buildings specifically for long-term maintenance
Read more
Image cover for the article: Simple and modest pale blue bungalow with a matching separate garage that has obtained an agricultural planning permission in the middle of a beautiful green expanse with large rolling mountains and dark green forest in the background
RIBA Stage 5: An architect’s guide to construction
Read more
Image cover for the article: Simple and modest pale blue bungalow with a matching separate garage that has obtained an agricultural planning permission in the middle of a beautiful green expanse with large rolling mountains and dark green forest in the background
Top 8 amazing interior design trends for 2024: London & UK edition
Read more
Image cover for the article: Simple and modest pale blue bungalow with a matching separate garage that has obtained an agricultural planning permission in the middle of a beautiful green expanse with large rolling mountains and dark green forest in the background
Applying for retrospective planning permission: Everything you need to know
Read more

Ready to unlock the potential of your project?

We specialise in crafting creative design and planning strategies to unlock the hidden potential of developments, secure planning permission and deliver imaginative projects on tricky sites

Write us a message
Decorative image of an architect working
Call Message