When Brexit, subsidy payments and dairy prices are dominating the headlines, the effect of planning policy on farming businesses is unlikely to grab widespread attention.
Yet, with businesses having to cope with frequent changes to farming regulation – not to mention diversification opportunities to enhance the business – the need for a planning system that allows farmers to adapt quickly to change should be a live concern for all in the sector.
With a consultation on the future of the Scottish planning system under way until early April, farmers are now being urged to make their views known to government about the impact of planning on their businesses.
Timed to coincide with the consultation launch, an agriculture and planning summit was held in mid-January, jointly chaired by Fergus Ewing, the cabinet secretary for rural economy and connectivity, and Kevin Stewart, the minister for local government and housing.
The event was attended by industry organisations as well as farmers, land managers and professional advisers, all of whom were keen to share their experiences of the planning system on agricultural businesses – as well as the reforms required to create a more supportive framework for rural development.
One of main issues raised was a real lack of understanding among planners of the needs and practices of modern agriculture, and the more urban the council, the less aware and indeed supportive they are of rural development and of agricultural business growth.
A number of those in attendance felt that some local authorities had created a cultural construct of what rural areas should look like – whereas Scottish Government, the farming sector and most rural dwellers wish to see a working countryside.
There was a widely-held desire that planners accumulated a better understanding of changes in rural land use, and how amendments to policy impact on business and therefore need to be reflected in planning system – for example, regulations on animal health and welfare, slurry storage and non-timber sheds for pig farming.
One of the most commonly raised issues was the outdated approach to farm buildings – and in particular, permitted development rights.
The maximum size of a farm building allowed under permitted development rights is 465sq/m – a relatively small shed in today’s farming world.
Scottish Land and Estates is supportive of the approach taken in the consultation which suggests permitted development rights could be extended to cover “development which supports the resilience of the farming sector, including polytunnels and change of use from agricultural buildings to housing”.
As many readers will know, housing is also a major issue for farming businesses and especially homes that can support farming families.
There was encouragement at the summit that at least one council plans to implement an approach that is supportive of housing which enables business succession, and it is the hope of many in the sector that this enlightened stance will be adopted by other local authorities. However, the summit was not simply about what government and councils needed to do – the meeting also highlighted the fact that farming voices need to be heard more often to influence planning policy rather than simply waiting for an issue to occur at the application stage.
With this in mind, we would urge farmers and landowners across Scotland to respond to the Scottish Government consultation by April 4 – and ensure future planning policy meets the needs of agricultural businesses for the next decade and beyond.
Sarah-Jane Laing is the director of policy and parliamentary affairs at Scottish Land and Estates.