Cluttons warns of pitfalls of barn conversions

The converting of barns or redundant rural buildings to houses has become very popular however the current wave of home improvement shows, such as Grand Designs, only highlight some of the "trials and tribulations" that owners can experience whilst trying to achieve their dream homes.

What the shows often fail to highlight are the pitfalls that can befall the unwary. Obtaining consent to convert an old barn or granary building to residential use is now increasingly difficult and often against planning policy. An incredible amount of care and detail is required in submitting a planning application. For those whose plans are approved, that is not the end of their problems.

Ian Alexander, a partner at Cluttons in the Project and Building Consultancy recommends that buyers seek expert advice when buying properties for conversions to ensure that they do not fall into these pitfalls.

"Considerable care needs to be taken with these buildings which are often old and fragile as if they collapse or burn down, they may not be reconstructed without planning permission. Many owners are unaware of this regulation and unfortunately there are a number of instances when planning permission has been withheld, despite the fact that the building proposed is identical to that which previously existed.

"In some instances, the refusal of new planning permission can lead to devastating results such as people losing their homes. This may occur when the conversion of a rural building or barn to a house has been granted planning permission but during the course of the works the building collapses. A fresh application for the approval of the plan is then required as the original plan is no longer valid. As the building to be converted no longer exists, this permission is sometimes denied on the basis that the justification for the original permission, a building worthy of preservation by conversion, is no longer valid."

In 1990, the Rother District Council refused permission for the reconstruction of a barn that collapsed during conversion works. When the decision was appealed, the Council argued that the applicant had been the author of his own misfortune as inadequate precautions had been taken to ensure the integrity of the building during winter storms. The Inspector decided that the Council had acted fairly in refusing permission for the reconstruction of the barn and the personal circumstances had not been demonstrated to justify the construction of what amounted to a new house on the site.

Alexander said: "The specific wording of the planning permission is particularly important in establishing if there is a right to rebuild. This was demonstrated in a case in Woodspring District Council in 1991 where enforcement action was taken on unauthorised building works. Permission had been granted for a barn conversion however, during the building works a wall collapsed and others were found to be unsafe having no foundations. On the advice of the Council's Building Inspector these walls were demolished. The owner argued that the planning permission gave the go ahead to rebuild and the Inspector agreed as the terms of the permission referred to 'the renovation and conversion of farm buildings'. In this case, there was no material departure from what had been permitted."

The circumstances may change slightly in situations where buildings burn down or collapse by accident. In these circumstances there may be no rights to rebuild if there is a planning presumption against new houses in the countryside and green belt. However, it is normally the case that an appeal inspector will consider that personal circumstances should override any planning objections.

In some cases, it may be also be argued that if there is planning permission for the construction of a building and it is subsequently destroyed, it is legitimate for that building to be rebuilt as per the details of the original permission.

Cluttons, 05.05.2005

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