Most councils have planning policies which make a distinction between built-up areas and countryside, but they don’t always follow a common sense interpretation. Most small hamlets, many villages and even edge of town areas are defined as ‘countryside’ for planning purposes, despite being quite built-up.
Precisely what is and isn’t countryside is set out in district or borough councils’ local plans, unitary development plans (UDPs) or new-style local development frameworks (LDFs). These documents contain maps of boundaries drawn around towns and villages, distinguishing between built-up areas and countryside. These boundary lines are given different names by different councils, such as ‘built-up area boundary’ or ‘settlement area boundary’. Don’t be misled by a particular location being surrounded by houses, or inside the village name sign or speed limit marking the start of a village. If it’s outside the line on the plan then it’s countryside as far as the council is concerned.
Very different planning policies apply depending on whether a particular piece of land is inside a built-up area boundary or not. Generally, policies allow house building within these boundaries but control it very strictly outside. Only housing intended to serve the needs of agriculture, replacement dwellings and, in some areas, infilling, are allowed. (Affordable housing is allowed too in some places, but we’re concerned here with ‘open market’ housing.)
You can look up your council’s policies on its website or call in at its offices. When looking at the plan, check if there are any particular constraints, such as green belt or Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) designations covering the place you’re interested in, usually shown on the maps by special colours or hatching. You might find other designations too, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and various nature conservation sites. Planning policies are particularly restrictive in such areas.
Some local plans/LDFs have a specific policy allowing for the infilling of small gaps in rows of houses, while others specifically identify those parts of villages and hamlets where infilling is OK. Some go so far as to describe the maximum size of gap that could be infilled. All such policies restrict infilling to small gaps in otherwise built-up frontages. Where there’s no infill policy, even a genuine infill opportunity might be resisted by the council. So, just because a plot sits between houses, don’t automatically assume it can be infilled.
Generally, you will be allowed to demolish an existing house in the countryside and replace it with a new one, especially if the existing house is empty and in poor condition, and the council doesn’t consider the residential use of the building to have been abandoned. For a house to be abandoned, it needs to have been empty for many years, in a derelict condition or have been put to some other use since last occupied. You can usually replace an existing house with a similar, or larger house.
Most councils have a specific policy spelling out how big an increase in size might be allowed, which is crucial, as many of the properties bought for demolition and rebuild are small bungalows and cottages. (The size of replacement is particularly tightly controlled in green belts.) Some councils specify a percentage increase that’s allowed, others go for more vague guidance, such as the replacement being ‘not significantly larger’ than the original.
Conversion of rural buildings is relatively straightforward within development boundaries, but in the countryside it’s not always easy. Policies tend to favour conversion to rural business use (including holiday lets) and it’s often necessary to show that business use isn’t viable before residential conversion will be accepted.
Buildings must be capable of conversion without significant rebuilding or extension and it’s often necessary to produce a structural survey to prove this. In addition, rural buildings might be home to bats or owls and you’ll need to factor the cost of an ecological survey into your project if their presence is suspected.
If you’re involved in, or are setting up, a genuine full-time agricultural or other rural business then you will be allowed to build a house as long as it’s absolutely necessary to the business to have someone living on-site full time. If the business is new, councils first grant a temporary permission for a mobile home for a period of three years, to ensure the business establishes and becomes viable. Only then will permission be granted for a permanent house. Size restrictions are also imposed, and over-elaborate or expensive designs discouraged.
An oddity of the highly restrictive approach to building in the countryside is the acceptance by government that outstanding examples of contemporary architecture can occasionally be allowed, set out in Planning Policy Statement No. 7 (PPS7). In practice the bar is set so high that only a small handful of approvals have been given. Unless you have a big budget and don’t mind gambling the significant design and planning fees necessary to make a viable case, don’t pursue this route.
Government guidance on housing emphasises the re-use of so-called brownfield sites for housing. The real thrust of this emphasis is towards urban sites, but there are occasionally rural opportunities. Replacing one use that is ugly, noisy, smelly or that generates traffic with another, less offensive, use can be a route to getting planning permission. For example, applying to replace a noisy and unsightly scrapyard on the edge of a village with a single house may well succeed, but replacing a small rural workshop with a house won’t. Local plan policies don’t cover individual cases like these, so it’s up to you to put your case. It always helps if the use being removed is giving rise to complaints.
Occasionally you see areas of land divided up into so-called leisure plots. Such plots never have planning permission, but unscrupulous sellers sometimes imply that permission might be forthcoming and the prices look attractive. Don’t be misled. These plots are almost invariably a complete waste of time. They’re not inside development boundaries, not infills, and the land, like most other fields and woods, is subject to the strict polices of restraint found in the relevant local plan, UDP or LDF.
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