How To Get Planning Permission on Non-Development Land

Chrissie Sugden
Wednesday, 13th July 2011

Chrissie Sugden investigates the opportunities for permaculturists and transitioners to live on the land

I doubt I'm the only person who dreams of owning a piece of land (preferably with friends) on which to build affordable eco-houses and grow food and fuel. This is difficult in the UK due to the vast disparity between the price of agricultural land (4,000-10,000/acre) and land with planning permission (200,000+/acre). Whilst politicians continue to trot out the usual rhetoric: 'sustainable development/lifestyles/communities, zero carbon housing, blah, blah, blah', what, if anything, has actually changed on the ground to make land accessible to Permaculturists and/or Transitioners of modest means and self-sufficient dreams?

Should I Take The Risky Road?

You may have heard tales of people in the UK who have 'succeeded' in creating their dream communities by buying land, moving onto it without planning permission, living in teepees, benders, yurts, caravan/cabin hybrids or whatever, spending years battling with their local planning officials, and finally winning retrospective planning permission. Permission, however, often comes with less well-known conditions attached e.g. Ben Law's planning permission for his house is a silvicultural tie, i.e. it applies to running a wood-land business and charcoal burning on the land and has a personal tie to Ben Law himself.

The Ten Year & Four Year Rules

There are rules, which apply UK wide, state that if you live in a caravan for 10 years or a building for four years, unnoticed by the powers that be, the dwelling becomes 'lawful' and you can apply for a 'certificate of lawfulness'. Clearly this means you need tolerant neighbours and that you will spend four to 10 years living with insecurity. Should someone complain about your dwelling, even at the 11th hour, you can be served an enforcement notice and rendered homeless. None-the-less, there are undoubtedly people up and down the UK pursuing this strategy, hidden away in bits of wood-land; mostly, I suspect, single people or couples. It would be harder to conceal a community for years...

Safer Routes: The DIY Farm/Smallholding

Another tactic open to single house-holds is to buy a suitable piece of agricultural land and submit an 'agricultural prior notice consent form' to the local planning office detailing the agricultural building you intend to build on your land. This is 'permitted development' on agricultural land and hence doesn't need planning permission. You should receive consent within 28 days and are then entitled to commence building.

You can then legally site a temporary mobile home on the land to live in whilst you build your barn (and set up your business). Your temporary accommodation can remain in place for five years (presumably as long as you are still building your barn) during which time you need to develop your business to generate as much income as possible.

At the end of five years you apply for planning permission to build a house. You must prove that you need to live on-site in order to run your business, e.g. caring for livestock that breed all year round, and that your business generates sufficient income to support you.

Additional Opportunities: Scotland

The crofting counties of Scotland have a long tradition of smallholding known as crofting. Although crofts for rent are very hard to find and crofts for sale are now as absurdly priced as other housing land, the Scottish Parliament recently made it possible to create new crofts. It is now possible to buy land and apply to the Crofter's Commission to have it crofted; the main benefit being that planning permission is generally granted for one house on a working croft.

Since this legislation is relatively new it's not clear how it will work in practice, and since the Crofter's Commission has to consult the relevant planning office it is still possible for planning permission to be refused, so plans should be discussed with the local planning office before buying land.

One advantage for prospective perma-communities is that a legal body such as a housing co-operative could be formed to purchase the land and apply to create a number of new crofts which could then be leased to members of the co-operative. It is common for crofters in a crofting 'township' (a group of crofts) to own/lease 'land in common' which is managed by a 'Grazings Committee'. Grants are available for crofters and Grazings Committees towards the cost of fencing, agricultural buildings and (for crofters) a house.

The National Forest Land Scheme (NFLS) & Woodland Crofts

This scheme allows communities in Scotland to apply to buy land owned by Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS) that falls within their designated boundary, even if the land is not for sale. Of interest to potential perma-communities is that the scheme also applies to 'communities of interest' (i.e. groups of people who aren't necessarily resident in the same area), which a group of permaculturists could surely describe themselves as. In combination with the legislation that allows the creation of new crofts, this scheme recognises and promotes the opportunity to create new woodland crofts.

Whilst you may not be attracted by the idea of purchasing a typical Sitka plantation, Sitka timber is good for both building and fuel. Once felled, the land can be replanted with other suitable timber crops. FCS is promoting the concept of woodland crofts which pre-suppose planning permission for one house/croft and the potential to build a house using your own timber. (Consult the planners first!)

Lowland Crofting

In 1994 West Lothian District Council instigated a policy called 'lowland crofting' to encourage regeneration and repopulation of a specified rural area west of Edinburgh.

The policy allows small farmers with holdings of 100 acres minimum to boost their income by creating 'crofts' on their land. These 'lowland crofts' are not subject to crofting law and are primarily aimed at the 'hobby farmer' or horse enthusiast. Farmers have to submit a plan for the whole farm which includes planting broad-leaved woodland, preserving and enhancing biodiversity and creating footpaths, as well as providing the infrastructure for the new houses. If granted planning permission (not guaranteed) 'croft' plots can then be sold on the open market or fully developed with housing and then sold.

Whilst not specifically aimed at intentional communities, the policy does suggest that farmers seek suitable 'development agents' who might include 'groups of interested individuals, operating as a consortium or perhaps as a formal co-operative'. Perhaps a group of perma-people could purchase a small farm and use the scheme to develop it along the lines they would likely want to go anyway.

Pembrokeshire, Wales

Thanks to prolonged lobbying by 'The Land is Ours', now known as Chapter 7, in Wales the development of 'Low Impact Dwellings' in the open countryside is legal. Adopted by Pembrokeshire National Park Authority in May 2006 and by Pembrokeshire Council in June 2006, Policy 52 '...provides a context for permitting development in the countryside as an exception to normal planning policy...' This is the policy under which the Lammas group finally achieved planning permission and is developing their site.

A highly detailed management plan must be submitted to the planners and an Annual Monitoring Report recording the progress made towards achieving the targets set out in the plan. The policy has eight criteria which must be met by prospective developments.

Wales: One Planet Development

In July 2010 the Welsh Assembly Government issued planning guidelines entitled 'Planning for Sustainable Rural Communities'. These include 'One Planet Development' (OPD) which addresses the Welsh objective of using 'only its fair share of the earth's resources' within a generation i.e. reducing the ecological footprint of each Welsh citizen from 4.41 to 1.88 global hectares/person.

The guidance states that 'Low Impact Developments' may be located within or adjacent to existing settlements or in the open countryside. Whilst a lot shorter than the Policy 52 guidance, there are many similarities and it is safe to assume that most of the same tests apply.


Unfortunately for those of you in England, I know of no new policies that might improve your chances. Suggestions for using existing policies are well covered in Chapter 7's excellent DIY Planning Handbook. However, the coalition government is in the process of redrafting all planning policies closely following the blueprint in the Tory Green Paper 'Open Source Planning'. The measures outlined for the most part don't look very supportive, and may threaten even the four and 10 year rules.


I have no additional information about Ireland.

In Conclusion

For groups feeling a sense of urgency the only tried and tested, legal path to buying an affordable piece of land to live on appears to be that trod by Lammas under Policy 52. Whilst the demands feel a little excessive, the policy does detail exactly what is required and as long as you meet the stringent conditions planning permission should be guaranteed, even if you have to go to appeal first. Likewise the OPD policy could be used anywhere in Wales.

In the crofting counties of Scotland there are options for groups willing to test the waters. Whilst the legal mechanism is in place to create new crofts/woodland crofts this has not necessarily penetrated local planning office resistance to 'development in the open countryside'. Also taking on crofter status entails buying into a highly complex system of legislation; not for nothing did some bright spark define a croft as 'a piece of land surrounded by legislation'. Nonetheless the situation still looks less bleak than for self-sufficient dreamers in England.

Chrissie has been a permaculture enthusiast since attending a course in 1990. She lives with her partner in a small community on the West Coast of Scotland where she enjoys experimenting with a compost heating system, breeding worms and watching her veg-verge grow.

She has spent several years researching affordable housing options and has written a book called, Grounds for Hope Ways to Live Legally on Cheap Land in the UK, available as an ebook in iPad and Kindle formats.

Useful Websites 

N.B. Agricultural Permitted Development Rights are only applicable on 5 hectares or more - see

Recommended resources

Why small is successful - how to get planning permission for your small land-based enterprise

Grounds for Hope Ways to Live Legally on Cheap Land in the UK, available as an ebook in pdf, iPad and Kindle formats.

How building your own home can awaken survival instincts

A review of Low Impact Development: planning and people in a sustainable countryside

The community planning handbook - how people can shape their cities, towns and villages in any part of the world


Exclusive content and FREE digital access to over 20 years of back issues


Trial your FREE digital copy HERE!


mck |
March 30, 2012 - 12:28pm
Right from the get go, this is a pernicious form of conspicuous (permacultural) consumption. You win no friends with an article titled 'How To Get Planning Permission on Non-Development Land.' The reason that crofts are so expensive is that they have become the plaything of middle-class urbanites who fancy relocating to live out a rural idyl dream. There are so many errors of judgement here, I don't know where to begin, but the premise on which the article is based is disgraceful. Much like the many emails recently/currently flying around Transition Town networks, alerting folk of the need to cash in quick on solar panel grants etc. before government closes the door, or suggesting loopholes to get round disappearing access to money for this or that grant (I can name names if you like, but it is a general trend) this article too seems to be based on the premise that sustainable is good, even if it means that incoming crofters price local people off the land. There is a backlash coming. Believe me. Local people will fight back if many more interlopers force land/house prices up with regard the limited resources already available. 'How To Get Planning Permission on Non-Development Land'??? How about NOT looking for ways of getting around the Non-Development Land issue? As for your 'safer routes' idea, it is also a disgrace. It amounts to little more than pitching up and staking your claim with a form of Gold Rush mentality. I repeat, as long as the unwaged and the rural poor are forced off the land by interlopers looking for a permacultural dream, a backlash will continue brewing and when finally it comes it WILL be a wake up call to all who seek to circumvent legislation, utilise legal loopholes, or treat land they have no connection with as theirs in custom if not (yet) title. This is just bald middle class conspicuous consumption inverted to appear as ethically sound husbandry. A total disgrace!
Jessshakespeare |
March 30, 2012 - 9:49pm
Unwaged and rural poor? Middle class? What a very arrogant response . You think there are only poor people in rural areas? Only people who were born or are fortunate enough to live in those areas have any right to owning land? Just who do you think you are? What an incredibly close minded and selfish response. Backlash? Is this how rural people generally feel? 'get off our land' ? I only hope you are alone in this.
Maddy Harland |
April 12, 2012 - 3:41pm
Currently the only people with access to rural land are either very rich and/or are property developers. The only people who are able to develop land outside the envelope are large companies who exercise authority over the planning system. The first comment assumes that the article is purely for affluent middle class dropouts who want to downsize. The fact is most of us rural dwellers who earn less than the average income will never be able to buy property for our children so they can live in the same village in our current property market. This article is not for 'interlopers' it is for people who want to live simply and cultivate the land, whether they are rural or urban, and regardless of class. The only people who are benefitting from the current system are developers and a small minority of the very affluent. Everyone else is outside looking in. That's where the backlash will lie and that is the status quo. Wake up this is nothing to do with a class war between middle and lower - you'd love us to believe that! It is about money and power and neither of the latter have ever had that in the UK.
Pete Kennedy |
April 12, 2012 - 5:00pm
The assumption that high land prices are caused by middle class folk looking to live out sustainable dreams is misguided. The majority of land in the UK is owned by a very small number of super-wealthy landowners. This problem is being further compounded by very low interest rates, encouraging institutions and investors to make speculative investments in land. The opinion that seeking a sustainable life on the land is some kind of unfair conspicuous consumption is unfortunate. Most permaculturists seek to live ethical, low impact lifestyles that work in harmony with nature. We have all been forced off the land at some point in our family histories - many had their land stolen by the families of those super-wealthy estate holders. To focus blame on incoming permaculturists is to somehow condemn them to living in towns and cities, whilst ignoring the real fundamentals behind land prices and availability.
Terry |
September 10, 2012 - 12:34pm
Just to say, let's not forget that the "good" local people are selling their properties/land for exhorbitant prices to "interlopers". Often these end up in the hands of businesses as second homes. That's what destroys villages, not permaculturists growing vegetables!! The first comment on here shows a worrying lack of awareness about the real world we live in and it's impending and very real ecological crisis. Your information is based on the past affluent times when the middle-classes could buy-up nearly whole villages - those days are gone. The political agenda is now clearly for businesses to develop land, properties, amenities and anything that will generate capital and so increase Britains net "worth", at the cost of all our quality of life and the planet. I think your annoyance would be better directed at the drivers for this change, rather than individual people who want to protect the land we still have access to and support the life of local communities. It appears as though many "locals" will not, if the price is right.
Terry |
September 10, 2012 - 12:39pm
Also to add, that the planning system is skewed in favour of big businesses, who access consultants, lawyers and lobby in order to get their planning applications through. And, you say that individuals shouldn't employ all means at their disposal? In order to live a sustainable lifestyle? Your logic beggars belief.
majicforest |
November 4, 2012 - 8:41pm
hi . . . ive been struggling with the authorities over caravans on land for the last year . . . . it is very easy to `invade` someones space by buying the land next door , until one has been `tested` by the locals one cannot achieve complete acceptance . . . . it all takes time - our forefathers and mothers were all `invaders` and `invaded` at some time . . . . but new invaders are almost always slightly arrogant in assuming their `rights` . . . as someone who is half welsh and english but born in africa , where might i have the `right` to try to settle? so im in wales , which on the whole is lovely , but locals are rightfully suspicious of another invader . . . the real problems lie in the planning systems , that are made to protect communities , but become a blockage to all but those who would deign to just live and grow their veggies undisturbed - unless you can grease palms , charm , trick or some like venture that would likely involve money . it is another method of controlling populations , with the powerful having the best of it = goes back to norman conquest etc . good luck to all the incipient independent veggie-growers
Ru |
November 12, 2012 - 7:45pm
Regarding the first post, I've been in the interesting position of being able to watch a kind of sped-up microcosm of the British housing market, living in the Western Isles. Until 2005-6, you could buy a big 'fixer upper' in ok condition for £30K, a good 4 bed house for £50K, or a 2 bed council house for £5-8K. Croft plots could be had for £3K. Then a television programme featured a family relocating to the Uists. Within something like 3 years, the same council houses cost £80K - 1000% inflation. Everyone saw how it happened. At first there was much discussion of how ridiculous it was anyone might buy land for more than the status quo. Then the first crofter sold a plot for something like 50% above the going rate. To the surprise of many, it was snapped up. That opened the floodgates, and while some lamented the passing of cheap property, most were quickly keen to get as much for their property as they could. Few were incomers: they were locally born people with long family connections to the area. It could be argued that it would have happened eventually anyway, but no-one, incomers or otherwise, ever forced anyone to sell land above what had been the going rate, and now, sadly, the dilemma facing particularly young people in the Western Isles is the same as everywhere else.
joannageorge |
April 7, 2013 - 11:13am
Hi, I read the above comment and found it very useful. I am from the Highlands of Scotland and as I grew up I have watched people boast as to how much land they own. I have always thought, how niave, you don't own the land, I don't own the land. It has been given to us to share and to respect and look after. It is home for us all, not a minority and those with too much land could share it with those who have none. But that doesn't happen because much of humanity is greedy, vain and afraid of not having enough. It is as simple as that. In 2008 I found myself without home and began searching the Highlands for a derelict place to do up - after much looking and asking, the same answer again and again, no. So these homes were left to rot further. I heard so many excuses, all said pleasantly by 'lovely' people . They may as well have said we don't care about your predictament, go elsewhere. I eventually found somewhere to rent and lived in a few caravans. In 2011, after being unable to secure even a rented home (people were also unwilling to rent their homes which lay empty over the winter, but made good money in the summer), I became homeless again. How bad it felt to see that my homeland has been reduced to this state. So in response to the above article, I am in favour of this method. I can see that homeless folk and those who own no land may be able to find a way to help themselves to survive. In time they may also be able to do more than survive and enjoy living.
geoff stray |
May 13, 2014 - 10:28am
Councils are finding ways of wriggling out of the 4-year rule...see this article on a man who has been told to demolish his house after living in it for 4 years:
John Gill |
September 7, 2015 - 7:04pm
can you buy 2 plots of land in different parts of the country and live on each one for short periods? So that I have a home all year round.

add comment

Log in or register to post comments