COMMENT: Simplifying the planning system could add billions to the rural economy

31 July 2020

By CLA President Mark Bridgeman

The Prime Minister is encouraging workers to return to their offices.  For millions, that means a return to spending hours on packed commuter trains just to do a job they now know could be done perfectly successfully at home.  Perhaps in years to come, the very idea of commuting long distances every day, at the expense of family life and so much more, will feel primitive.

The concept of the ‘city office’ is shifting before our eyes.  RBS has announced 50,000 workers will remain at home until next year. Other major employers are questioning the need for their expensive rented skyscrapers.  Estate Agents across the country are reporting increased enquiries from urban-dwellers seeking an escape to the countryside, whilst career service Escape the City has reported how the number of jobseekers looking for work in rural locations has doubled since last year.

Rumours of the death of cities are perhaps exaggerated, but it is not difficult to imagine a world where businesses – from start ups to SMEs to multinationals – shun the city in favour of home working and smaller, rural office spaces.

The Prime Minister should not discourage this shift; instead he should facilitate it, and his forthcoming reforms to the planning system are the perfect place to start.

Farmers want to farm.  Of that there is no doubt.  But the reality for many is that exploring new revenue streams is a financial necessity, and as many as 60% already have diversified incomes with a broad variety of business interests.  Time and again we hear of farmers wanting to convert that old dairy parlour, or those old stables, into modern offices fit for 21st century businesses only to be held back by a bureaucratic and outdated planning system that almost seems designed to prevent economic growth.

Indeed, it is so hard to navigate that, at great cost, many businesses simply give up trying to find a way to work within its restrictions and abandon development projects altogether. It is an increasingly common view that the criteria for businesses to follow in their applications are excessive creating the need for endless discussions between applicant and authority.  The problem has become so widespread that Government has been forced to create a disputes mechanism simply to resolve disagreements. This, combined with the costly engagement of professional advisors to help applicants wade through the mire of detail, is actively deterring businesses from carrying on proposals that would create jobs in the countryside.

In other words, the enormous time lag, upfront cost associated with making a planning application, and the significant risk of an unsuccessful outcome, are hindering potential rural economic development. This cannot be overstated. One planning application for the redevelopment of a site in a market town required £1 million in upfront costs for supporting evidence, and was ultimately refused. A planning application for a plant that converts biomass into energy incurred £300,000 in upfront costs and was also refused—to the detriment of the Government’s own “green” agenda.

And this is to say nothing of the time it takes to receive planning permission. One Country Land and Business Association member spent 20 years navigating the planning system in order to convert listed farm buildings into the kind of commercial office spaces that would encourage entrepreneurs to find a home for their business in the countryside.

The COVID-19 crisis has made the costs and delays associated with the planning system even less acceptable. Now, we desperately need a well-funded, efficient regime designed to encourage economic development in rural areas.  The needs of the rural economy should be a higher priority in the National Planning Policy Framework, and there must be greater use of ‘permission in principle’ rules for proposals with demonstrable economic benefit.  Pubs that have closed due to a lack of viability should be given permitted development rights, allowing the buildings to be used as rural business hubs for entrepreneurs and small business owners without costly delays.

Simplifying the planning system could unlock billions of pounds for the economy at a time when growth is desperately needed.   We want to ensure people can live the rural lifestyle so many crave, whilst still succeeding in their chosen career.  The only way that can be achieved is with a planning system designed to facilitate job creation and sustainable economic growth in rural areas.