Hugh Ellins, Associate Solicitor in our Commercial Team, talks Barn and Redundant Buildings Conversions – The Pitfalls: How to avoid losing your planning permission

Many people dream of living in an old barn or redundant farm building and, indeed, they can make very stylish properties. There are practical problems. For example in respect of converted barns and the area that retains its full height, how does one change the lightbulbs in the ceiling or clean those high exposed beams? What about dusting?

However, taking on a conversion is frequently more complicated than many people realise and should not be undertaken by the faint-hearted or those without deep pockets. There are many pitfalls. The most significant is that, unless care is taken, the planning permission for the conversion can easily become unenforceable. The circumstances in which that arises often occur during the early stages of the build. Not infrequently, as the build work progresses, the builder will discover that the structure of the building is in a worse condition that was originally anticipated with the only result being the whole of the building has to be removed. Therein lies the problem. The planning permission will normally refer to a conversion and not to the building’s total demolition. If the building is demolished then there are various planning inspector’s decisions which state that the demolished building can no longer be converted. That is on the principle that you cannot convert something that no longer exists. The sad situation is then that the planning permission is no longer useable. Depending on where the building is situated there is no guarantee that a planning permission for a new building will be granted. I appreciate that logically one might think that if an application was made to build a new building exactly the same as that which was covered by the permission granting conversion then there should be no reason why the permission should not be forthcoming. That is not the case because whilst a planning authority might be prepared to grant a conversion of a redundant building it looks differently on an application for a brand new building.

How do you avoid falling into that expensive trap? My advice is that unless you are experienced in planning and construction, the first step is to employ a project manager who’s brief will be not only to oversee the building works but also to ensure compliance with the planning permission throughout the project. That is both in respect of the very fundamental issue of conversion but also in the points of detail on obligations that might be imposed and need to be fulfilled before either the building works commence or at various stages in the process.

Having employed a good project manager then a good quality and experienced builder should be employed. The building contract should provide that the builder will comply not only with Building Control regulations but also with the planning obligations.

If both of the above steps are taken you substantially decrease the possibility of inadvertently breaching a planning permission and turning a conversion project into a demolition project with a result that there is a loss of the planning permission and the building cannot progress.

I have already referred to the fact that those who are involved in conversions need deep pockets. The reason for this is that frequently, as the project proceeds, unforeseen difficulties occur which involve additional expense. Therefore the contingency budget in relation to such projects should be substantial. The risk of unforeseen matters can be substantially reduced by proper surveys being undertaken in respect of the building – particularly in relation to potential foundations and roof structure and the load bearing capacity of walls.

This blog applies to any conversion but I surmise that the majority of the problems arise in respect of redundant farm buildings or barns because these are frequently in areas where the local planning authority would not accept an application for a new dwelling.

If you have got into the unfortunate situation of having lost the planning permission, is there anything that can be done? The first thing is to consider whether there is any realistic prospect of being granted a new permission to carry out the construction of a building that would have been constructed if the conversion had proceeded. As I have indicated, there is no guarantee that such application will be successful although planning issues can be overridden if the applicant is able to establish severe financial hardship. That is a point that can but not must be taken into consideration by a planning inspector.

The other point to consider is whether any of the professionals or builder that you have used have failed in their duty of care and may be liable for a claim for damages. Unless the instructions to the professionals were clear and in writing the case will be difficult to pursue. In pointing out the pitfalls I am not trying to dissuade people from converting redundant buildings into dwellings as not only do they provide living space, they frequently provide attractive living space that enhances a local area. All I am doing is giving pointers to ensure that the dream does not turn into an expensive nightmare.

Hugh Ellins