Long-term readers of this blog will know about my bureaucracy-busting superhero alter ego, Spudman. While I’ve been farming by day and blogging by night, Spudman has for the past four or five years been locked in a fierce battle with the forces of darkness in order to win the right for us to live permanently on our farm. And I’m pleased to announce that he has finally prevailed, thanks in no small part to his long-suffering partner in crime, La Brassicata, and a merry band of local sisters-and-brothers-in-arms who have long given our project their unstinting support. With planning permission for a permanent rural worker’s dwelling hot off the press, we now have the green light to develop the farm long-term with security of tenure. Time, then, for Spudman to hang up his spurs, beat his sword to a ploughshare (or at least a small transplanting tool), and enjoy a quiet retirement.
But it strikes me that there’s quite a lot of ignorance about the English planning system as it applies to small-scale farming. For evidence, I cite the objection letters against our application sent in by a few local residents and, let me whisper it, also the views of one or two within the system who really ought to know better. So as his last contribution to the cause before slipping off into a quiet retirement, I bring you a question-and-answer session with Spudman himself, amounting to nothing less than an objector’s guide to rural planning applications.
- Spudman, why do people buy small plots of bare agricultural land and then try to get permission to build houses on them?
Essentially for one of two reasons. The first is that the price of housing in England (including farm housing) is so extravagant that unless you’re independently wealthy, the chances of being able to buy a farm and then service the debt from farming it hover between the remote and the non-existent. Therefore a lot of people who want to farm buy cheaper (but still not cheap) land lacking in any dwelling, and hope that they may be able to build a house on it.
The second reason is that, in view of the extravagant costs of housing and the relative cheapness of agricultural land, it’s tempting for people who have no real interest in farming but who would like a nice, cheap house in the countryside to buy some agricultural land in order to steal a march on the rural property market.
If people of the latter kind had their way, the countryside would soon be full of gimcrack mansions and agricultural land would cost the same as any other development land, making farming impossible. Therefore we have a planning system, which attempts to filter out people of the latter kind from people of the former. This is a good idea, except the filters it uses are so fine that they catch out a lot of people of the former kind too, making it extraordinarily difficult for anyone to establish a new farm business.
- How does this planning system ‘filter’ work?
In various ways – for the full local detail where I live, take a look at Development Policy 13 in Mendip District Council’s Local Plan. Essentially, you first have to get permission for a temporary house, which has to be completely removable. You then have just three years in order to move onto your site, establish your (temporary) home, develop your enterprise and convince the planning authority that it all stacks up business-wise. Quite a tall order. But after that you can apply for permission to live permanently on the site.
There are various other criteria that you have to satisfy too. Probably the two most important ones are, first, that your business is in profit for at least one of the three years of your temporary residence, and, second, that there is an agricultural need for you to be on the site. Both of these make sense in theory as a way of filtering out people who don’t really intend to run a business and don’t really need to be on site. But the devil is in the detail: it’s extremely hard to make any small business turn a profit after three years, especially an agricultural business in which the financial returns are invariably small. And it’s also hard for farmers with small-scale, labour-intensive enterprises to convince people in the planning system (who don’t usually know much about this kind of farming) that they really do need to live on their site. Planning officers (and local objectors) often go to town (quite literally) on the idea that small-scale market gardeners don’t need to live on their sites in order to make a reasonable living from growing and selling vegetables. This makes it plain that they’ve never actually tried it.
- So what definition of ‘profit’ is used to judge a rural enterprise?
Aha, well that’s one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe – like how to unify quantum physics with general relativity, and the precise whereabouts of Elvis. But I can tell you that last year Vallis Veg earned a shade under £19,000, that we’ve received permanent planning permission, and that ipso facto our business must be profitable. At one meeting, a local councillor said that our profitability was ‘marginal’. I pointed out that it was only slightly less than the national average farmer’s income (I should have added that it’s also been achieved on a paltry 18 acres, and with no EU farm subsidies, which account for more than half most farm incomes). He conceded that a lot of farmers would be happy to earn what we’d achieved. This is what I mean by the filters being too fine.
Various objectors to our application questioned on the basis of our profits whether our business was ‘serious’, one of them saying “it would be impossible to support a family on these results”. This suggests to me that a lot of folks really have no idea how squeezed farm incomes are. In fact, it suggests to me that they have no idea how squeezed incomes are in general around the world, since by my reckoning our returns exceed average global income on a purchasing power parity basis by about 50%. Which means that there are a hell of a lot of people around the world achieving the ‘impossible’ and supporting their families on much less income than us every day, something that I find worth remembering. Perhaps one or two others might find it worth remembering too.
- OK, I get it, I get it. But what’s the best way of me stopping someone from being allowed to build a house on my neighbouring farmland?
Well, first of all maybe you should ask yourself why you want to object. You’re living in the countryside, right? Are you farming it? No? So maybe you’re living in a dwelling that could be occupied by someone who is producing something useful from the surrounding land? And yet you want to stop them? Maybe you should think about that…
- Right, thought about it. I still don’t want somebody moving into my backyard and spoiling my quiet enjoyment of the countryside by producing vegetables and nonsense like that. So could you just tell me how to stop them?
OK, well it’s tricky but what I’d suggest is (1) do some research, (2) stick to what affects you, (3) avoid casual insinuation and spurious dirt-digging, and (4) don’t make things up. Otherwise you just sound like a Nimby.
- Could you break that down for me a bit?
Certainly. On the research side of things, you might start by finding out what local policies govern the application. If, for example, the Local Plan has a policy relating to “permanent rural worker’s dwellings” and the application is for a “permanent rural worker’s dwelling”, don’t write an objection letter that says “The title of the application is misleading – it says permanent rural worker’s dwelling but the supporting documentation shows that it is for a farm house”. Because, here’s the thing, everybody already knows that it’s for a farmhouse. It’s just that in modern planning-speak the word for ‘farmhouse’ is ‘rural worker’s dwelling’ – kind of the way that in modern school-speak the word for ‘library’ is ‘enrichment centre’. So what I’m saying is, don’t assume that the applicant is trying something sneaky just because they’re using phrases you’ve never heard of. They’ve probably just spent way, way more time than you have reading Mendip District’s Council Local Plan. Take pity on them.
Actually, the issue of our ‘farmhouse’ raises an interesting point that haunts the question of housing in modern Britain. The Local Plan states that the size of the dwelling should be commensurate with the enterprise, which is fair enough – if you run a small market garden, you shouldn’t need a leisure palace. But it’s reasonable, surely, to ask for enough room to house your family and visitors. Not according to certain objectors: “It is quite clear that this request is for a country house to suit the requirements of the applicants rather than a simple rural worker’s dwelling”, wrote one of them. I’m not sure if the adjective ‘simple’ in that sentence is qualifying the noun ‘worker’ or ‘dwelling’, but I think it’s telling either way. Here in outline is the same mentality which prompted the government to impose its notorious bedroom tax on social housing tenants deemed to have more space than they deserved. Another objector commented that our proposed house appeared to be “substantial” and “well designed” and therefore apparently “does not fulfil the function of a basic rural workers dwelling”. If you have the money, of course, there are huge rural properties on the market which you can buy and occupy (or else leave empty) however you damn well please. But heaven forbid that a ‘simple’ farm worker should be allowed a substantial or well-designed house. Might there be a trace of class elitism here, alarmed at the prospect of the hoi polloi getting the houses they want rather than what their betters are prepared to allow them?
Well, I couldn’t possibly say. But I can show you our existing house, much of which will be retained as part of the permanent dwelling. It doesn’t look much like any country house that I’ve ever seen, other than in the rather literal sense that it’s (a) a house (well, sort of), and (b) in the country.
Perhaps I can generalise from these observations into my ‘stick to what affects you’ point. I’d recommend that you think about why you’re actually objecting. Maybe it’s because you share road access with the applicants and would prefer less traffic? Then you can just say so, without taking it upon yourself to go through the whole application with a fine-tooth comb looking for loopholes to try and shoot down the business they’ve been toiling away at for years, just so that you can have a marginally quieter life. Therefore, I’d suggest that you don’t write things like “It is recommended that Mendip District Council pay an unannounced visit to validate the viability of the Vallis Veg enterprise” – partly because they already do that as a matter of course during their evaluation process and it’s their job, not yours, to have opinions about the viability of the business, and partly because it makes you sound like a pompous busybody. Anyway, are you really that interested in the financial details of your neighbour’s business? Or is your interest more like the kind of interest in bat welfare that people objecting to large wind turbines often seem to develop quite late in life, which had hitherto lain entirely dormant?
On the spurious dirt-digging front, you may happen to know something about the applicants’ personal affairs. Maybe they own other property, or have other sources of income, such as this high-earning blog whose ‘Donate’ button is virtually worn out through overuse. Maybe you have extra sources of income too. What actually matters is whether the application meets the relevant criteria in the Local Plan. Nothing else. So don’t go there.
On the making things up front, maybe check what applications have actually been submitted for the site. This will help you avoid imputing phantom planning applications to the applicants that have never actually existed – for example for orchards, woods and market gardens (none of these are planning considerations) or for farm shops. If there’s a campsite on the application site which doesn’t accept caravans, then it’s probably best to avoid claiming that it’s used by caravans, huh? You get my drift…
- I do get your drift, but honestly some of these small-scale growers don’t even grow all their own vegetables. Some of it they buy in from other growers.
A point that some of our objectors made much of. And, well, readers of the Small Farm Future blog may crow in delight to discover that in real life the author of the fantasy novel Neo-Peasant Wessex, far from living an entirely self-reliant peasant life on his small farm, actually buys in and sells on produce as part of his evil capitalist business model. But the fact is, the present economics of commercial horticulture dictate that pretty much every box scheme does this. And remember, as per point 2. above, that said author needs to have a viable business in order to keep the farm intact so that he can dabble at being a neo-peasant in his spare time. But you could look at it this way: we buy in produce from other small local businesses and non-profits, the increased volume enables us to employ people to help with packing and increases the overheads we pay to some of the retail outlets we use. So what we’re doing is a net benefit to the wider local economy. A small net benefit, perhaps. Last year we paid out less than £2,000 for part-time help, for example. But again, that’s not bad going for an 18 acre farm just 3 years into full onsite production. We’re paying out more this year. And even small things can matter. “The part-time well paid work they offered me made a massive difference to me personally”, as one of our workers wrote. So before writing lofty dismissals like “Based on these results there is no opportunity to employ anyone from the local community, other than the odd part timer, so there is no benefit there.” I’d recommend finding out if anyone in the local community does actually feel some benefit.
- OK, thanks for your advice, Spudman. But, tell me honestly, if I write in to complain, what are my chances of getting the application rejected?
Well, if the application fulfils the criteria in the Local Plan and your only real objection is that you’ll occasionally be held up by a bit of extra traffic, then I’d venture to say that, happily, your chances are remote. Despite the fact that writing in and complaining to the authorities is something of a national pastime in Britain, the planning system doesn’t pay a huge amount of attention to letters of objection (or indeed of support) unless they raise an issue of planning policy that wasn’t already apparent. It’s ironic, really – a lot of people get into small-scale local agriculture because they dislike the money-and-market obsessed dysfunctions of the contemporary food system. But if they manage to establish a small business that stands on its feet – which is by no means easy – then the money-and-market friendly planning system will likely reward them for it in the end. The downside is that if you buy an acre or two of land to provide for your own personal subsistence, or let us say just as a wild example that you buy ten hectares of land to provide for your family’s subsistence and that of four other families who you wish to live with on your site, you haven’t a cat in hell’s chance of getting your project through the planning system. Which is why when I retire from farming and step into a senior governmental role within the Peasant’s Republic of Wessex, I’m going to have to tear down the entire planning system and build it up again from scratch. How? I’ll tell you another time. For now my take-home message is this: the world is a crowded place, and if we’re going to get through the various looming crises we face, a lot of us – me included, as you can probably tell from this post – are going to have to get a whole lot better at the fine art of living and letting live. A really simple way of starting that process is thinking about whether we really need to object to a neighbour’s planning application, and if so how best to do it graciously…