Land Appraisal: Woodland Without Planning Permission in West Sussex

Could this idyllic rural patch of land be the perfect self build site or is it too good to be true? Mike Dade takes a closer look at the details
Build It expert Mike Dade
by Mike Dade
15th November 2018

Simon Green has spotted a piece of woodland for sale in West Sussex.

The particulars show an attractive looking, contemporary dwelling set amongst the trees, and confirm the plot comes with the owner’s consent to construct a house or other buildings.

The particulars also state that structures can be built on the site for forestry purposes, taking advantage of permitted development rights.

With a price tag of a mere £15,000, Simon thinks this might be a great investment at worst, and at best a potential plot for exactly the type of contemporary eco home he’d like to build.

Land appraisal

The site is an area of woodland of about 0.1 hectares, situated about two miles from a village. It has gated access onto a lane, a cleared area where timber has been stacked, and surrounding trees.

It forms part of a much larger plantation, is more or less level and the clearing could readily accommodate a house without encroaching into the woodland itself.

Access onto the lane has good visibility in both directions, but there’s no sign of any services on the plot or in the road.

  • WhoSimon Green
  • WhatA low-price patch of woodland without planning permission
  • WhereWest Sussex

The latter route has the most potential here, but it’s difficult to see how the location could be enhanced other than possibly by the replacement of conifers with native broadleaf trees.

I could see such an argument carrying some weight if the entirety of the wood (which extends out to several hundred hectares) was subject to an enhancement and management scheme, but not where we’re just dealing with a tiny proportion of it.

The rural business angle is definitely worth considering, but I’m not convinced there’s anything like enough land here to justify a housing need.

Forestry management and things like woodland crafts or education have, on occasion, formed the basis of a successful application for a new house. But there would always be a great deal more woodland involved.

Woodland positioning

With the possibility of building a new dwelling here looking remote at best, Simon’s keen to explore the idea of getting some sort of forestry related structure on the site, with a view to converting it to a home in the future.

Planners have become more favourable towards conversions, and establishing a building here would certainly enable at least the possibility of a future conversion.

Mike Dade looking at woodland in West Sussex

This land is being sold without planning permission

The sales particulars point out the potential to use forestry permitted development (PD) rights to put up a building, but this needs careful examination. While it’s true that there are particular PD rules that can enable you to develop forestry buildings, inevitably these are subject to a number of checks and balances.

Firstly, there must be a forestry business and, secondly, the structure must be reasonably necessary to serve it.

The large pile of cut timber on this plot points to an on-going forestry business, but that timber would almost certainly have come from elsewhere in the large woodland. I very much doubt the council would accept that a genuine going concern could operate within such a small area of land.

Even if the forestry building was accepted, the next question would be what sort of structure would be justified? Space for a few saws and hand tools and possibly a small tractor would be about all that might be expected here. A shed would probably suffice, and the council would undoubtedly look with suspicion at anything unnecessarily large.

Forestry permitted development requires a prior-approval application to the council, so it can verify that what’s intended is indeed reasonably required for a forestry business. While Simon might be able to achieve some sort of building, it’s unlikely to be on a scale capable of later conversion.

Pros & Cons

Simon really likes this spot and could see himself spending weekends here camping and relaxing.

Permitted development rights enable the use of land unconnected to buildings for this sort of purpose for up to 28 days a year. Anything more would represent a change of use requiring formal planning permission.

Leaving a caravan or tent on site for over 28 days, even if not occupied, would also breach the 28-day rule. Simon thinks he might also plant a few fruit trees and maybe some vegetables, which wouldn’t need permission.

Whenever odd bits of woodland like this are sold off, it pays to look at the wider picture. For instance, investigating whether the parcel of land is one of many that might also be sold off – as that’s often the case in such circumstances.

Where an area is lotted up in this way, councils can take action to prevent it from becoming degraded by removing permitted development rights by means of a thing called an Article 4 Direction. Simon should check whether there’s one affecting this site.

Mike Dade looking at woodland in West Sussex

It’s unlikely planning permission for a new building would be approved here

There’s the question of access to the remainder of the woodland, as there’s a forestry track leading off from the site entrance. Simon will need to look into whether anybody else has a right of access over the site, and if so, for what purposes.

He also needs to check where the services are, as there could add considerable cost involved if water, in particular, has to come in from a long distance away.

Is this patch of land worth buying?

With a price tag of only £15,000, it’s clear that the owners don’t consider the land to have much planning potential, otherwise they’d be charging a great deal more for it. As long as Simon is prepared to spend this amount on what’s likely to be no more than a leisure plot then he can’t go too far wrong.

It’s important for Simon to get his solicitor to look over the title documents carefully. Some sites lotted up like this are sold by unscrupulous companies that ask for high deposits, insist you don’t need a solicitor (or should use their own) and generally try to squeeze money out of the unsuspecting as quickly as possible.

This isn’t necessarily one of those situations, but if he suspects it might be, he should walk away. Small parcels of woodland do get sold off by genuine sellers, so if that isn’t the case here, there are likely to be other opportunities elsewhere.

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