Developing farmland: regulations on land use

Planning applications for new buildings on agricultural land or change of use for existing farmland or buildings.

This guidance was withdrawn on


As UK farmers look to modernise, develop and grow their businesses, many are generating profitable alternative uses for land and buildings, as well as creating new jobs and services in the countryside that benefit local communities.

While the government tries to minimise the loss of farmland, it is also taking a positive approach to creating a more diverse rural economy.

This guide will explain what is involved in applying for changes to the use of land and buildings, and what farmers and land managers need to consider in planning and land use. You can find out how to apply for planning permission, what local planning authorities will take into account and where to get further advice, guidance and information.

Planning permission

If you wish to change the way in which you use land and/or carry out development work, it is likely that you will have to apply to your local authority or the National Park planning authority for permission to do. They will assess your plan to make sure it is in keeping with local development plans, existing infrastructure, permitted dimensions and materials as appropriate to the area.

When do I need planning permission?

If you are proposing to change the use of land or buildings from agricultural use, you will need planning permission. It is also always required for dwellings. It is often a prerequisite of obtaining grant funding for a project.

When do I not need planning permission?

Planning permission is not required for:

  • agricultural operations
  • using existing buildings on agricultural land for agricultural purposes
  • changes to the inside of buildings, or small alterations to the outside - eg installing an alarm box
  • changes when permitted development rights exist

Always check with your local planning authority before starting work, otherwise you risk having to cease the new activities or demolish the new buildings.

Agricultural Land Classification and soil types

Land quality varies from place to place. The Agricultural Land Classification (ALC) provides a method for assessing the quality of farmland to enable informed choices to be made about its future use within the planning system. It helps underpin the principles of sustainable development.

The ALC system classifies land into five grades, with Grade 3 subdivided into Subgrades 3a and 3b.

The best and most versatile land is defined as Grades 1, 2 and 3a by policy guidance. This is the land which is most flexible, productive and efficient in response to inputs and which can best deliver future crops for food and non-food uses such as biomass, fibres and pharmaceuticals.

Current estimates are that Grades 1 and 2 together form about 21 per cent of all farmland in England - Subgrade 3a contains a similar amount.

See the publication Agricultural Land Classification: protecting the best and most versatile agricultural land, on the Natural England website.

Soil types

Soil types are a major component of the ALC system. England’s soils are diverse, reflecting the wide range of underlying rock types and drainage, and are variable in their characteristics. Soil types can change over short distances because of complex interactions between underlying geology, landform, past and existing land use and climate.

Soil in England is classified into 10 major groups, with nearly 700 soil types grouped into around 300 associations that typically reflect the varied geology of the parent rock.

These have been further simplified into 27 classifications of what are known as ‘soilscapes’, which group soils according to similar basic properties and link this to information on habitats, fertility and land use.

Permitted development

The Town & Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 provides general planning permission known as ‘permitted development rights’ for certain types of minor development.

The types of permitted development most likely to benefit farmers include:

  • temporary uses of land
  • agricultural buildings below a certain size
  • forestry buildings
  • caravan sites and related buildings in some circumstances

There are permitted development rights for erecting (on holdings of five hectares or more), extending or altering a building, and for excavations and engineering operations that are reasonably necessary for agricultural purposes - though you may still require approval for certain details of the development.

For most other types of development and change of use, you will generally need to apply for planning permission.

For more information, download Communities and Local Government  information on permitted development rights for agriculture and forestry from the Agricultural Document Library (ADLib) website (PDF, 46K).

Permitted development rights are not available for:

  • farm or forestry dwellings
  • livestock units sited near residential and similar buildings

Before making use of agricultural permitted development rights, it is always best to check with the local planning authority.

There are additional controls for permitted development that may affect legally protected wildlife sites.

For Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), candidate SACs and Special Protection Areas (SPAs) the local authority must establish - in consultation with Natural England - that such development would not affect the integrity of the site. This includes development outside the site boundaries that could affect how it functions.

Farmers can either apply to the local authority for written permission, or apply to Natural England for a formal decision as to whether the permitted development would have a significant effect on a site.

If Natural England decide that the development would not have an adverse effect on the site, then no prior approval is required, provided the development meets all other permitted development conditions and restrictions. If Natural England decides that the development would affect a site, then the farmer can apply in writing to a local authority as with the previous option.

If you are a landowner or occupier wants to carry out works on a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and those works are listed on the SSSI notification as operations likely to damage the special interest features of the land, you can:

  • Apply to Natural England for a consent - if this is refused then it would be an offence to go ahead with the work. You have a right of appeal.
  • Apply to the local authority for planning permission - if permission is granted then the works can be carried out.

You can find information on the location of SACs, SPAs and SSSIs on the MAGIC website.

Find out about individual SACs and SPAs on the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) website.

You can also read details of individual SSSIs on the Natural England website.

Find contact details for local offices on the Natural England website.

Planning Policy Statements

Planning Policy Statements are where the government’s national planning policies are laid out. They have replaced Planning Policy Guidance notes.

Compulsory purchase of land for development

‘Compulsory purchase’ or compulsory acquisition refers to the government’s ability to buy private rights in land in order to benefit society.

The law regarding compulsory purchase of land for development is laid out in Part 8 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004.

Download Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) information about compulsory acquisition of land and compensation from the ADLib website (PDF, 775K).

Planning permission and protected species

Legally protected species can be affected by development or change of use - for example, bats may roost in barns or outhouses. If a local authority thinks that protected species are likely to be affected by a development, then this will be taken into account when granting planning permission. They may ask you, as the applicant, to supply survey information to help them with their decision. In some cases, a licence from Natural England may also be required. Surveys should always be carried out by appropriately qualified and licensed individuals.

Find information on protected species on the Natural England website.

Environmental Impact Assessment and cross compliance

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is a formal procedure where a local planning authority or Natural England (in relation to uncultivated, semi-natural or restructuring of rural land project) assesse the potential environmental impact of certain new developments and changes to land use before they are allowed to proceed.

EIA in England and Wales is covered by the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2011. There are separate arrangements in Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland. Changes to uncultivated or semi-improved land or a project to restructure rural land are covered by the Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) (England)(No 2) Regulations 2006 and forestry related projects are covered by the Environmental Impact Assessment (Forestry) (England and Wales) Regulations 1999.

When is EIA required?

EIA is mandatory for certain developments, such as large installations for the intensive rearing of poultry and pigs. It may also be required for developments in sensitive locations such as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Improvement of uncultivated or semi-natural land, by for example ploughing or fertiliser application, may also be covered by EIA. For more information, see the guide on Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA).

Your local planning authority is responsible for administering the EIA regulations in relation to development and can advise whether an EIA is required. Natural England is the regulator for changes to uncultivated or semi-improved land and restructuring of rural land projects.

Cross compliance

Farmers must comply with certain legal conditions when planning and using their land. These conditions are known as cross compliance and consist of 19 existing European laws known as Statutory Management Requirements (SMRs). Cross compliance also involves maintaining land in good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC).

For more information on SMRs and GAEC, see the guides on cross compliance: the basics, Statutory Management Requirements (SMR) and standards of good agricultural and environmental condition (GAEC).

Registering your land on the Rural Land Register

The Rural Payment Agency’s (RPA’s) Rural Land Register (RLR) holds accurate, up-to-date digital maps of all farmed land. It should be noted that the RLR is not the same as the HM Land Registry. See the guide on registering your land.

You must register your land on the RLR for:

  • Cross compliance purposes. This is a very important issue for farmers and may affect whether you are entitled to some farmers’ payments. For detailed information, see the guide on cross compliance: the basics.
  • Payments through the Single Payment Scheme - read the guide on the Single Payment Scheme (SPS).
  • Payments through the Environmental Stewardship Scheme - see the guides: Environmental Stewardship: the basics and Entry Level Stewardship (ELS).
  • The English Woodland Grant Scheme (EWGS). Read more about EWGS on the Forestry Commission website.

Woodland owners cannot register land on the RLR until they are on the Customer Register.

Find information about the RLR on the Forestry Commission.

How to register with the RLR

You can request form RLE1 from the RPA Customer Service Centre. Forms will ask the area of the holding and what the land is used for.

You should complete and return part D with an accurate map - such as an ordnance survey map - so that your holding can be accurately identified and recorded. You can contact the RPA Customer Service Centre on Tel 0845 603 7777.

In Scotland, you must register through the Scottish Government Rural Payments & Inspections Directorate (RPID). You can call the Scottish Government on Tel 08457 741 741.

In Wales, you should register through the Divisional Office of the National Assembly for Wales (NAW) Agricultural Department. You can call the NAW Agricultural Department Advice Line on Tel 029 2075 2222.

In Northern Ireland, you should register through your local County Agricultural Office.

If your land is in more than one country, you will need a separate registration for each country.

Whole Farm Approach (WFA)

The WFA ensures that as a farmer or grower you can spend less time filling in forms, access up-to-date advice and guidance and reduce the number of inspections you will need. All the land you wish to enter into the WFA scheme must be registered on the RLR before submitting your application.

You cannot include unregistered land in your application or put Entry Level Stewardship management options on unregistered land.

Further information on planning land use

Further information on planning land use is available in other guides on this website, and from the following organisations.

Planning Aid is a free, voluntary service from the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), offering independent professional advice and help on planning. You can find planning aid information on the RTPI website or call the Planning Aid Advice Line on Tel 0121 693 1201.

One of the major roles of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is to help the farming industry operate as efficiently as possible. Defra administers European support policies that provide around £3 billion to UK agriculture. They also oversee a number of agencies that work with arable farmers, imports and exports of crops and implement pest and disease controls. You can call the Defra Helpline on Tel 08459 33 55 77.

The Rural Payments Agency (RPA) is responsible for licences and schemes for growers as well as for running the SPS. For more information about SPS and how it can help your farming business, you can call the RPA Helpline on Tel 0845 603 7777.

You can also read the guide on the Single Payment Scheme (f).

In England, the Farm Advisory System advises farmers about cross compliance. For further information, call the Cross Compliance Helpline on Tel 0845 345 1302. Alternatively, find information on cross compliance requirements on the Cross Compliance website.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) represents the farmers and growers of England and Wales. It aims to promote successful and socially responsible agriculture and horticulture, while ensuring the long-term viability of rural communities.

You can read about the work of the NFU on the NFU website.

Farmers are likely to come into contact with local authorities over a number of farming, land use, food standards and environmental regulations. Your local authority may also be able to provide further information or resources.

Here’s how we made controlled traffic farming work (Flash video)

Edward Dale

Natural England

Edward’s top tips:

  • “Basically it means that every time we go into a field we are going down the same wheeling.”
  • “We’ve reduced the amount of the time we are in the field now, and there’s more land for direct drilling.”
  • “Diesel usage has gone from 120 litres a hectare down to around 60 litres a hectare.”

Edward Dale is an arable and combinable crop farmer from Lincolnshire. Here he outlines the benefits of controlled traffic farming: water soaks through the ground better, increased yields, less fuel usage, less time establishing a crop and more fertile soil.
* Read transcript  * Listen to audio only (mp3, 5.6MB) * Help 

Peter Kendall

Farming Futures
NFU Online

Peter’s top tips:

  • “Mapping fields to make sure the right amount of fertiliser goes in the right places saves me the really expensive inputs”
  • “There’s evidence you can save up to 10 per cent on fuel use by using precision guidance systems to make cultivation more efficient”
  • “Farmers who collaborate and work together will see this technology increase the productivity of their farms”

Peter Kendall is an arable farmer and president of the NFU.  Here he talks through the methods he has introduced to make his farm more efficient and profitable, saving on inputs like fertiliser and fuel costs, and reducing the carbon footprint on his farm.
* Read transcript  * Listen to audio only (mp3, 5.74MB) * Help 

Further information

NFU Callfirst Helpline

0870 845 8458

Planning Aid Advice Line

0121 693 1201

Cross Compliance Helpline

0845 345 1302

Natural England Enquiry Service

0845 600 3078

Defra Helpline

08459 33 55 77

NAW Agricultural Department Advice Line

029 2075 2222

RPA Helpline

0845 603 7777

Download Defra’s planning guidance for farmers from the ADLib website (PDF, 784K)

Download Communities and Local Government Permitted Development information on Rights For Agriculture And Forestry from the ADLib website (PDF, 46K)

SACs, SPAs and SSSI maps on the MAGIC website

Individual SAC and SPA details on the JNCC website

Individual SSSI details on the Natural England website

Local office contact details on the Natural England website

Download FAO information about compulsory acquisition of land and compensation from the ADLib website (PDF, 775K)

Planning permission information on the Planning Portal website

Protected species information on the Natural England website

Scotland EIA guidance on the Scottish Government website

Northern Ireland EIA information on the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development website

Cross compliance guidance on the Cross Compliance website

EWGS details on the Forestry Commission website

RLR information on the Forestry Commission website

Planning aid information on the RPI website

NFU information on the NFU website

Published 7 September 2012