Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Residential conversion of agricultural buildings - ecological considerations

Neil Pearce at Wychavon DC has raised with me a point arising from the conversion of agricultural buildings to residential use under Class MB in Part 3 of the Second Schedule to the GPDO. This relates to the appropriateness of a requirement that certain ecological surveys should be carried out. There are actually two points –

(1) Can the need to protect bats or other protected species be a material consideration in the determination of a prior approval application under Class MB?

(2) Can pre-commencement conditions relating to ecological surveys and protection measures be attached to a notice of prior approval under Class MB?

Paragraph MB.2 provides that the change of use under Class MB(a) is permitted subject to the condition that before beginning the development, the developer shall apply to the local planning authority for a determination as to whether the prior approval of the authority will be required as to—

(a) transport and highways impacts of the development,
(b) noise impacts of the development,
(c) contamination risks on the site,
(d) flooding risks on the site, or
(e) whether the location or siting of the building makes it otherwise impractical or undesirable for the building to change from agricultural use to a use falling within Class C3 (dwellinghouses),

and it goes on to say that the provisions of paragraph N of Part 3 shall apply in relation to any such application.

As I pointed out in earlier blog posts relating to the changes to the GPDO made in 2013 and 2014, paragraph N provides that the local planning authority must, when determining a prior approval application have regard to the National Planning Policy Framework as if the application were a planning application.

The consensus of opinion seems to be that, notwithstanding paragraph N, the LPA is in fact constrained in its consideration of the prior approval application to the criteria listed in the relevant class in Part 3 (in this case, paragraph MB2). I believe that several appeal decisions have now been issued that confirm this approach.

In the case of Class MB, however, the criteria that the LPA must take into account are rather more wide-ranging than they are under certain other classes. In particular, these criteria include consideration as to whether the location or siting of the building makes it impractical for any other reason (besides the others that are listed) or undesirable for the building to change from agricultural use to residential use. This seems to me potentially to introduce all sorts of other factors that might arguably militate against the residential conversion of the building. Among these, I suggest, could be ecological considerations, including the presence of protected species, such as bats.

I am told that Wychavon has a lot of bats (Stop sniggering at the back there!) and some enthusiastic ecologists. The argument is that, whilst not expressly referred to as one of the prior approval issues for an LPA to consider, ecology (and in particular the conservation of protected species) remains a key factor in the conversion of rural buildings. The ecologists very reasonably point out that the De-CLoG response to consultation on this issue stated that “All changes under permitted development are required to meet necessary habitats and environmental legislation and regulations.”. Furthermore, Section 40 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 requires all public bodies to have regard to biodiversity conservation when carrying out their functions. In the exercise of its functions, an LPA is also required to have regard to the requirements of The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010. I am bound to say that this does seem to me to be an entirely reasonable approach, and I really can’t fault the ecologists’ view on this issue.

The ecologists also point out, again quite rightly, that Paragraph N of Part 3 provides that “the local planning authority may require the developer to submit such information as the authority may reasonably require in order to determine the application, which may include —

(a)assessments of impacts or risks;
(b)statements setting out how impacts or risks are to be mitigated; or
(c)details of proposed operational development;

The ecologists believe that the implications for protected species should be considered as “impacts or risks”. Again, I really can’t disagree with that. They also take the point which I referred to earlier that prior approval applications are required to be determined with regard to the requirements of the NPPF. This requires decisions to be taken with regard to protected species. The ecologists therefore feel that the council should require a prior approval application to be accompanied by an appropriate assessment of the potential impact upon protected species and a mitigation strategy, if there are protected species at risk of harm from the development.

This would certainly be done if the LPA was dealing with an application for planning permission, and I am inclined to the view that a similar approach would be appropriate in the case of prior approval applications under Class MB. One might argue that this makes a nonsense of the principle of “permitted development”, but I think this is inherent in the whole prior approval concept that the government has devised. I have previously described it as “planning permission-lite”. It would be a serious mistake for anyone to run away with the idea that the government ever intended a free-for-all for residential developments in the countryside . Some people may find this disappointing, but that’s the way it is.

I mentioned earlier the issue of pre-commencement conditions. The 2014 amendment to Part 3 made it clear that LPAs have the right to impose conditions on prior approvals in the same way, and subject to the same rules and considerations, as in the case of planning permissions. It follows that pre-commencement conditions may be appropriate in some cases, and such conditions might include protection measures for fauna and flora, among other things.

I don’t think Neil was expecting me to come down on the side of the ecologists, but as a lawyer I just have to interpret the law as it stands, irrespective of my personal views as to whether it is ‘right’ or not in a political sense.

NOTE: This is one of the many topics that are discussed in the author’s new book - “A PRACTICAL GUIDE TO PERMITTED CHANGES OF USE” published by Bath Publishing in October 2015. You can order your copy by clicking on the link on the left-hand sidebar of this page.



Chris P said...

Harming protected species remains a criminal offence regardless of the planning regime, so is it the planners duty to police the Habitat Regulations?

Anonymous said...

Agreed. I would also add to your comments that Article 3 (1) of the GPDO which states that PD rights are subject to regs 60 to 63 of the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994.

This is particularly important where barns to resi or office to resi development is likely to impact (alone or in combination) on a European Protected site.

Anonymous said...

It appears this new GPDO order was drafted in a hurry and each LPA has its on way of applying conditions to how an application should be applied for . A total disaster does anyone know of any successful applications

Mike Hastings said...

Another interesting point that I just discovered is that "curtilage" has been defined for the first time. ““curtilage” means, for the purposes of Class M, MA or MB only—
(i) the piece of land, whether enclosed or unenclosed, immediately beside or
around the agricultural building, closely associated with and serving the
purposes of the agricultural building, or
(ii) an area of land immediately beside or around the agricultural building no
larger than the land area occupied by the agricultural building,
whichever is the lesser;”;

This is, obviously, important when submitting a prior notification and identifying site. No large gardens here I'm afraid - and what happens with parking?

passerby said...

Undertaking surveys is really expensive. Building and erecting bat houses is really cheap. Surely someone's missing a trick here.

Anonymous said...

Hi passerby, the problem is that no-one has actually proved that a generic bat house actually works, and unless you know what you're mitigating for, a generic solution is as pointless as no solution at all. But I know evidence-led solutions aren't in vogue at the moment.