A Welcome Permissiveness Within Our Forests

A Welcome Permissiveness Within Our Forests

Forestry is the poor cousin of agriculture, in planning policy — it seems to have been included as an afterthought. Whereas agriculture is clearly and sensibly defined in Section 336 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, there is no statutory definition of forestry anywhere in planning law — so whether you are pruning a tree, making charcoal, or teaching woodland management in a forest school, it is never quite clear whether you are carrying out “forestry” or not — it is, as lawyers say whenever they are not sure about anything “a matter of fact and degree”.

This lackadaisical approach is reflected in the law relating to forestry permitted development rights — namely, what one may build in woodlands without applying for planning permission. Part 6 of Section 2 of the General Permitted Development Order 1995(GPDO) relating to Agricultural Buildings and Operations consists of nearly five pages of prescriptions about what is and isn’t permitted on various sized plots of agricultural land, pontificating upon such levels of details as whether or not a structure housing livestock is allowed within 400 metres of another housing people. When the civil servant drafting the GPDO got on to Part 7, Forestry Building and Operations, he obviously thought “sod this, I can’t be bothered to write it out all over again”, and managed to condense forestry permitted development rights into a mere one and a half pages.

This half-hearted approach can be of advantage to many people involved in woodland management. For example, whereas most agricultural permitted development rights (such as the right to build a barn or lay a track) only clock in if you have more than 5 hectares, for a forestry building there is no size limit on the land — it doesn’t matter how small your woodland is. Similarly, you can only claim the right to build a barn if you are an agricultural “trade or business”, but there is no such restriction on forestry buildings, so you have the right to build one, even if your forestry activity is a hobby. An agricultural building has to be “designed for agricultural purposes” — whereas it apparently doesn’t matter if a forestry building looks like a church or a pizza hut. An agricultural building has to be less than 465 square meters, but there is no limit on the size of a forestry building — though not many small woodland owners are going to want anything this big.

All of this is quite convenient for woodland owners. It means that you have the right to construct a forestry building, provided it is necessary for activities that class as forestry (whatever that may be) and provided that you follow the correct procedure for notifying the planning authorities before you start to build, and provided you don’t reside in it. Local authority planners may well contest your right to a forestry building, but that is often because they haven’t grasped how permissive the forestry permitted development rights are. To counter them you will need to quote chapter and verse, so you should read carefully Part 7 of Schedule 2 of the GPDO, and Annex E of Planning Policy Guidance 7, 1997.

If a planning officer is being persistently difficult about a forestry building, it is worth reminding him that anyway you have the right to keep a caravan on your land, providing it is used solely for forestry, for example as tool storage, office or forestry worker’s restroom. A caravan is not a structure, and if the caravan is only being used for forestry then there is no change of use — so there is no development at all. You can politely point to the officer that your wooden building will be a good deal more appropriate to the site than a 60 foot by 20 foot static caravan.

Every so often the incumbent government commissions a report which ends up recommending that permitted development rights should be tightened up — but nothing ever comes of these, possibly because the influential Country Land and Business Association puts in a word in favour of the status quo. A 2009 report produced for Kent County Council in response to the subdivision of woodlands by companies such as woodlands.co.uk recommended that permitted development rights should only be available for people with more than 25 hectares of woodland — a draconian restriction which would hamper many full-time woodworkers. But mercifully no one else has taken up this proposal. For the time being, if you own a wood or work someone else’s woodland, you are entitled, in theory, to build what you need to enable you to carry out forestry.

Simon Fairlie, The Land Magazine, www.thelandmagazine.org.uk.

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