Might the Answer to the UK Housing Shortage Be Found on Disused Farms?

Relaxed rules on the conversion of farm buildings and other structures to alternative uses illustrate a trend: the UK is open to adaptation and change.

The increased productivity of farms in the United Kingdom has worked its way into national planning policies in a surprising way. Beginning in May 2013, existing agricultural buildings that measure less than 500 square metres can now be utilised for other purposes with a “light touch” neighbour consultation.

This means that farm outbuildings and homes might adapt quickly to serve as retail, financial services, office, leisure, assembly, restaurant, pub and hot food takeaway businesses. According to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, this can have a positive impact on rural economies. “There is huge untapped potential in many disused existing buildings,” he told a website serving academics and professionals engaged in urban development. “We’re determined that every one of them is put to good use. By simplifying the process and relaxing some stringent rules we can provide a helping hand to those eager to boost their high streets or rural communities by cutting the time and costs needed to start up new businesses.”

In some of those communities, conversions to free schools might be accomplished as well. The programme also includes disused office buildings, which can also be converted to residences.

Why is this happening – and how might it address the country’s serious housing shortage?

It is largely due to the increased efficiencies in farming over the past several decades. Wheat yield as measured in tonnes per hectare rose from about six to eight from 1980 to 1995, for example. Yields have come about through more intensive use of fertilizer, increased use of pesticides, greater knowledge and expertise in farming, removal of hedges that enable more efficient farming, and European Union guaranteed pricing. Over this same period of time, the proportion of UK workers engaged in farming declined from 175 per 1,000 workers to about 100, a 42 percent reduction. With fewer people needed to work the land, it’s understandable that there has been so much consolidation of farms and the abandonment of farm buildings that go with that.

The conversion of farm buildings to pubs and office buildings to residences speaks to a generalised effort overall to open up building and land to alternative uses that fit a changing world. The UK population grew by 7 per cent between 2001 and 2011, an astonishing rate of growth in comparison to most countries in the Eurozone. This is due to a combination of immigration, higher birth rates and senior longevity. This last factor, seniors living longer, includes them remaining in their own homes longer, which contributes to the housing shortage. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) has advised that more local authority be allowed to drive decisions on how land is used, in part to speed up the process of conversions of property and buildings from a former use to something more appropriate for contemporary needs.

Strategic land investing is also an attractive investment opportunity when those conversions can be made. Specialists in conversion schemes – property fund partners who purchase disused farms, for example, that can contribute more to the local economy by conversion to residential use – will work with investors to identify appropriate sites, achieve a zoning change, and build the infrastructure necessary to enable homebuilders to build and sell residences. In some areas, those may be rental homes and in others homes for purchase.

Investors interested in any such land or building conversions need to go about it carefully, of course. Real estate is a means by which many have achieved significant asset growth, but it should be done in balance with other financial assets and growth strategies. An independent financial advisor should be enlisted to make an assessment of this type of capital growth fund.

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