This week I saw, in Planning Resource, the summary of an interesting rural case. It concerned an enforcement appeal, located in Vale of White Horse District Council around three miles outside of Oxford and within the Green Belt. In short, the Inspector was not convinced that a new business plan prepared by a rural worker after the death of her partner was viable. As a consequence the enforcement action was upheld, in a decision dated 7th April 2020, following a hearing.

The appellant had created a home at the farm out of three mobile homes connected together in a U-shape and clad partially in timber. After the council pursued enforcement action in November 2018, she appealed against the notice which had been served and sought permission for the development as a rural worker’s dwelling.

The Inspector stated that the proposal’s poor design, and ramshackle appearance, had significantly harmed the character of the area and was having an unacceptable impact upon the openness of the Green Belt. In addition the main issues included whether or not the need for a rural worker’s dwelling amounted to “very special circumstances” which was determined by assessing whether the appellant’s business plan was economically sustainable and viable for the foreseeable future.

In this case the appellant had received a temporary permission for the dwelling, in 2012, on the basis of a business plan which had initially seen a profitable enterprise, but this was affected by the death of her partner in 2012. Following this the appellant created a new business plan which was based upon selling raw cows’ and goats’ milk along with processed dairy products such as halloumi and kefir.

The Inspector agreed that there was a “clear intention” to run a profitable enterprise once more, following the appellant’s “recovery from tragic circumstances”. However, he noted, the proposed operations were “markedly different” to the initial business plan. The new plan did not include an organic orchard and chicken hatchery, which had previously been “major contributors of income”, while the raw dairy operations that were included were, according to the council’s environmental health officer, “very high-risk and complex”. There was also limited evidence to demonstrate that the new plan was viable, or that the appellant had acquired the necessary food authority approvals.

Overall the appeal was dismissed concluding that very special circumstances for the proposal, within the Green Belt, did not exist. In the planning balance the Inspector concluded that the enforcement notice’s compliance period of twelve months meant that the appellant would have reasonable time to look for alternative accommodation and that her human rights would not be breached.

So? What does this appeal tell us? Many people, in my experience, fail to see how high the bar is set for securing consent for rural worker’s dwellings. There seems to be a common misunderstanding that securing a temporary consent is easy, because it is just that – temporary. In fact, the initial consent is reliant on a robust business plan and Council’s will only grant consent if, as well as proving a viable business/functional and essential need, all other relevant policies are complied with. In this case the appellant’s experience was also strongly considered by the Inspector. This, to me, highlights the importance of evidencing a capability of implementing business plans as well as investment and infrastructure etc. demonstrating intent. The Inspector, throughout this decision, is clear about what evidence was, or was not, before him within the appeal and how this was taken into account.

Landscape polices, Green Belt (where relevant), Design etc. need to be considered as main issues alongside an assessment of the business. Whether or not there was an essential need for the dwelling was down at number four (out of five) main issues within this appeal. Green Belt assessment, openness, character and appearance were all assessed prior to essential need and before very special circumstances (or not) were considered.

In terms of Green Belt it is key that both the appellant and the Council agreed that the proposal for a rural worker’s dwelling did not meet any of the exceptions for development in the Green Belt. The proposal was viewed as a domestic residence within agricultural land rather than a building in use for agriculture – it was deemed as inappropriate development in the Green Belt as a starting point. This is, therefore, why there was a requirement to assess whether very special circumstances were applicable.

If anyone is considering applying for a rural worker’s dwelling early advice is key to ensure that a need can be evidenced robustly before a Council and/or an Inspector. I have prepared many agricultural worker’s dwelling appraisals for submissions and some of these were the result of working with applicants for 12 – 18 months pre-submission to ensure the justification was robust enough. If anyone wants to discuss such proposals, please do get in touch – the earlier the better!