Review of Class Q - Obstacles to residential conversions of agricultural buildings

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We discuss guidance issued by the Government in March that has reportedly made it much harder to gain prior approval for a conversion under Class Q.

As part of its wider targets to increase housing, the government has made clear that it intends to increase the supply of housing specifically in rural areas. A measure towards achieving that aim is the permitted development right contained in Class Q (previously Class MB), which enables the conversion of agricultural buildings for residential use without needing to apply for planning permission.

Before converting under Class Q, the prior approval of the local authority is required in relation to specific aspects of the conversion. In March of this year, the government issued new guidance (in the NPPG) on the application of Class Q and the prior approval process. This was, in part, a response to a growing number of refusals by local planning authorities of prior approval applications under Class Q, on the ground that the locations of the relevant buildings were not suitable for housing. Under the legislation, prior approval can be refused if the location of the building is “impractical or undesirable” for housing. The new guidance makes clear that this location test should be applied very narrowly (to prevent, for example, houses in locations without any access or services, or close to harmful or objectionable uses) and is not a test of the general sustainability of the location.

That clarification was welcomed by those seeking to convert agricultural buildings and seemed to be a step in the right direction for increasing rural housing. However, the new guidance also included a paragraph addressing the extent of building works that are permitted under Class Q, stating that the permitted development right does not include “the construction of new structural elements for the building”.

As an aside, it is not entirely clear what is meant by “structural elements” - the guidance attempts to clarify the meaning by stating that the existing building must be “strong enough to take the loading which comes with the external works to provide for residential use”. In any case, it must mean works more fundamental than the installation of new walls or a new roof, which are expressly allowed under Class Q.

It is not surprising that redundant, agricultural buildings will require significant work in order to be fit for residential use. The paragraph preventing structural works has reportedly given local authorities a new route for issuing refusals, resulting in the need for structural change being the most common reason for refusals for prior approval under Class Q (as well as for the dismissal of appeals against refusals).

This raises the question of whether the Government will seek to stem the new flow of refusals through an amendment to the guidance. The Government has already promised a review of Class Q under DEFRA’s 10-point plan for boosting productivity in rural areas (published in August of this year). That plan mentions that there will be a review of “the current threshold” for converting agricultural buildings to residential use, although no further detail is given on which threshold is to be reviewed. Currently, any conversions under Class Q cannot provide more than three dwellings per agricultural holding, covering a maximum of 450 square metres in total, so the review may mean a relaxation of those limits.

It would seem logical that any review of Class Q should look at both the criteria in the legislation and the effect of the associated guidance if Class Q is to be an effective tool for increasing the supply of rural housing.

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