Costly surveys that “stifle interest” in barn conversions may be vital

Maines Barn, Askrigg. Photo by Heather Hodgson.

By Betsy Everett

Planners demanding surveys costing thousands of pounds in consultants’ fees are deterring people from making their homes in converted dales barns, a meeting has been told.

Speed surveys, bat surveys, contamination, smell, and noise reports are “stifling the interest of potential applicants” in conversions, despite new planning rules, says county councillor John Blackie.

He said some were having to pay as much as £5,000 to £10,000 for reports, on one occasion having to dig up the barn floor to see if it was contaminated.
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“One resident told me he wanted to convert a barn in West Burton that had been used for farm animals and had to have a noise and smell survey. I could have told him what the noise would be – ‘moo’ – and could guess what the smell would be. Yet people are having to do all this with no guarantee they will get permission in the end. We need a modicum of common sense applied,” Cllr Blackie told a meeting of the Upper Dales Area Partnership.

But Richard Graham, planning and development manager at the national park authority, said applicants could seek advice in advance and get “a measure of certainty” before spending money.

The authority’s new policy allowed conversion of roadside barns, or those on existing farms, either as homes for local people, or as holiday homes. The latter helped the local farming economy. Those less accessible might be converted for other purposes, he said.

They could be converted into homes but certain criteria had to be applied: the building may need a structural survey, if it didn’t have foundations, a heritage statement to determine its historic importance, and a bat survey.

“Bats are a protected species and it is a criminal offence to disturb their habitat,” he said. However, most barns would only need a “scoping survey” to see if bats were present: mostly they weren’t because “they don’t like cold places.”

Potential applicants need not spend a vast amount on surveys up front, but could ask the planning authority for advice.

“If people are investing in these properties then they may have to speculate to realise the benefit of the investment. But people can ask our advice and although we charge for that service we can advise on what’s needed and that should give some certainty before putting in an application,” he said.

Callum McKeon, director in charge of environmental health for Richmondshire District Council, said protection of public health was vital: some barns may be contaminated through use of chemicals or machinery.

“If you are bringing a family in you will want to be sure there are no contaminants leaching out of the soil. We have to have proper evidence and we have to balance what we do with the aim of the planning authority which may be trying to regenerate the area.

“Trying to get public bodies to cut back on a cost basis when you’re looking at issues of public health will not find favour, especially in the current climate. We don’t want young families coming on to contaminated sites and then having health problems in the future,” he said.

Chris Hodges, a planning consultant, said rules stating there had to be visibility of  250 metres in each direction before permission could be given for access to the road from a barn conversion, were too hardline.

“There isn’t a single length of road in the dales that allows that sort of visibility,” he told the meeting.

Mr Graham said there was a reluctance on the part of highways engineers to go beyond the specification laid down in the rule book of engineering standards, but sometimes the authority looked at the context and did not necessarily take their advice.

“However, if we grant planning permission to a sub-standard access and there’s a fatal accident, it is our responsibility,” he cautioned.