SIMPLIFYING the planning system could unlock billions of pounds for the economy at a time when growth is desperately needed, according to the head of a countryside watchdog.

Mark Bridgeman, President of the Country Land and Business Association said 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 percent 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or those old stables, into modern offices fit for 21st century businesses only to be held back by a bureaucratic and outdated planning system that almost seems designed to prevent economic growth.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. 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."