Woodland planning law

This page describes laws relevant to planning permission in woodlands in Britain. These laws control what owners can legally build and do in woodlands.  There are differences between the law in England, Scotland, and Wales, but all three began at almost the same position before devolution in 1999 and have only deviated slightly.

A page like this is necessarily a work in progress. Comments and suggestions are very welcome. The next steps (Dec 2018 onwards) are to start adding references to planning appeals case law, which fleshes out the bare bones of the laws themselves, and to create some FAQs addressing common use cases (building a shed, running courses in woodland, Forest School etc.)

Town and Country Planning Acts

There have been a series of Town and Country Planning Acts since 1947, and they create the planning permission system in Britain. The most recent one for England and Wales was in 1990 (current amended text) and for Scotland in 1997 (current amended text). Subsequent acts have amended them in various ways.

The key concept is that they control development: changing things about the land (including building and demolition) and changing how it is used. By default, the acts require you to get permission from the Local Planning Authority (or LPA, usually the council) before doing development, but forestry itself is exempted.

In the 1990 England and Wales act, Part III Section 55 (2) says

The following operations or uses of land shall not be taken for the purposes of this Act to involve development of the land … (e) the use of any land for the purposes of agriculture or forestry (including afforestation) and the use for any of those purposes of any building occupied together with land so used.

In the 1997 Scotland act, this is in Part III Section 26 (2), with additional restrictions on agricultural drainage schemes. The provisions in the two acts mean that you never need planning permission for forestry itself, including planting woods on agricultural or other land, or doing forestry operations like coppicing or felling. (You may need other permissions, like a Forestry Commission felling license, of course.)

“Building operations” are defined in 1990 (England and Wales) Part III Section 55 (1A) and 1997 (Scotland) Part III Section 26 (4) say:

For the purposes of this Act “ building operations ” includes—

(a) demolition of buildings;

(b) rebuilding;

(c) structural alterations of or additions to buildings; and

(d) other operations normally undertaken by a person carrying on business as a builder.

and a “building” is defined in 1990 (England and Wales) Part XV Section 336 (1) and 1997 (Scotland) Part XIV Section 277 (1) by

building” includes any structure or erection, and any part of a building, as so defined, but does not include plant or machinery comprised in a building

These definitions are used in other legislation and in the courts.

ENA-270-60 is particularly interesting appeal case, from 2009. The Scottish planning reporter (equivalent to a planning inspector in England and Wales), found that use of a yurt kept on site as shelter for agricultural workers was allowed by Part III Section 26 (2) of the 1997 act, because it was a building used for agricultural purposes. It was a building because a building is “any structure or erection”, even though it was not “built” (not the result of building “operations normally undertaken by a person carrying on business as a builder”.) 

The two acts also create the so-called Four Year and Ten Year Rules governing the time limits within which councils must act against breaches of planning law. These rules are designed to allow breaches of the law which are so unobtrusive no one bothers to complain to the LPA within the time limit. Normally an LPA can issue an enforcement notice to make people reverse development or stop changes of use, which it is a criminal offence to ignore. The time limits precent such “enforcement action”.

For England and Wales, Part VII Section 171B of the 1990 act and for Scotland, Part VI Section 124 of the 1997 act, prevent enforcement action against “operations” (including building work) after four years have passed since the work was “substantially complete”. For change of use of a building to “a single dwellinghouse”, the same sections impose a time limit for enforcement of four years. For any other development, in practice for other types of change of use, the time limit is ten years.

Following attempts to subvert these provisions (eg by building houses inside barns, hiding them for four years, and then pulling the barn down), the 1990 act has been amended for England to allow enforcement action against breaches at any time if the LPA can demonstrate to a magistrates court that “on the balance of probabilities, that the apparent breach, or any of the matters constituting the apparent breach, has (to any extent) been deliberately concealed by any person or persons” (Section 171BC).  There are cases where the four year time limit has saved houses built inside woodlands, and so concealment by trees there before and after the building work appears to be treated differently to temporary structures only there to hide the work from neighbours and the LPA.

General Permitted Development Orders

Applying to an LPA for full planning permission can be a costly and time consuming process. Some types of development are considered to be so harmless or desirable that blanket planning permission for them is granted in the General Permitted Development Orders (GPDO). This means that subject to the conditions in the current GPDO and any Article 4 directives (see below), you have the right to carry out those types of development. For example, qualifying forestry buildings.

The current GPDO for England is from 2015 (full original text), for Scotland from 1992 (full original text), and for Wales from 1995 (full original text, which originally applied to England too.)

All four GPDOs have an article 4 which allows the local planning authority or the government to issue directives restricting the permitted development rights of particular pieces of land or areas. These are referred to as Article 4 Directives. LPAs publish lists of these directives on their planning websites.

There is a specific section in each GPDO giving planning permission to operations for forestry purposes. In the England 2015 GPDO, it is in Schedule 2, Part 6, Class E. In the Scotland 1992 GPDO, it is in Schedule 1, Part 7, Class 22. In the Wales 1995 GPDO, it is in Schedule 2, Part 7. The only significant amendment I am aware of is from 2014 when the Scotland GPDO was modified to remove permitted development on historic battlefields. There are similar provisions for operations in support of agriculture.

The first thing to say about the Forestry provisions is that development work for forestry other than buildings, roadways and quarrying (usually for crushed stone for roadways) is automatically allowed.

All GPDOs introduce a prior notification procedure before exercising forestry permitted development (“PD”) rights for buildings, roadways and quarrying. This is sometimes referred to as the 28 day rule  or procedure (not to be confused with the 28 Day Rule of temporary development.) In practice, it means you must inform the LPA about what you intend to do and ask if they wish to review your proposal (perhaps with more details) to determine whether the “siting, design, and appearance” is acceptable. They may also decide at this point that what you are proposing is not reasonably necessary for forestry. However, they may not refuse you because they consider the work itself is inappropriate (for example, putting up a building in the green belt.) If a building is reasonably necessary for forestry and cannot be seen outside the woodland (and therefore the siting and appearance are a non-issue) then it would seem unreasonable to refuse it. (Is anyone aware of appeals where buildings inside woods have been refused on grounds of appearance?)

Having said this, some LPAs are very poor at administering the system. They may confuse the whole process with full planning permission, in which they can turn down applications to limit development in an area. Or they may confuse it with agricultural permitted development which is also allowed by the GPDOs but has requirements in terms of hectares for different sizes of buildings and types of development, and a test for the commercial viability of the business. There are no hard and fast thresholds for forestry permitted development, but larger buildings in smaller woods are less likely to be judged as reasonably necessary for forestry. There is also no requirement that forestry work is done on a commercial basis. Forestry can be done for conservation and wildlife purposes, for instance. Due to the long term nature of commercial forestry, it would also hardly be reasonable to ask woodland owners to show the wood has been profitable over the last few years.

The GPDOs also class some other forms of development as permitted development, but here without any requirement to notify the LPA in advance.

For any purpose, the building of a “gate, fence, wall or other means of enclosure” is permitted development, providing it does not exceed 2m in height (1m in height if “adjacent to a highway used by vehicular traffic”). This is in Schedule 2, Part A, Class A in the 2015 England GPDO; Schedule 1, Part 2, Class 7 in the 1992 Scotland GPDO; and Schedule 2, Part 2, Class A in the 1995 Wales GPDO.

Part 4 of all three GPDOs gives permission for temporary structures and changes of use. The first class (A or 14) allows you to bring things on to your land needed to do other things which themselves have planning permission. For instance, if you are clear felling (!) you can bring lots of heavy forestry equipment into your wood for the duration.

The provision on land of buildings, moveable structures, works, plant or machinery required temporarily in connection with and for the duration of operations being or to be carried out on, in, under or over that land or on land adjoining that land.

The second class (B or 15) is even more useful and gives wide ranging permission to use woodland for other purposes up to 28 days per year. This is often referred to as the 28 Day Rule. It is extremely useful if you wish to develop secondary uses, such as Forest School or photography courses, and to allow you to use your woodland for recreation (“amenity”) yourself.

The text in the Scottish GPDO from 1992 is the simplest:

 The use of land (other than a building or land within the curtilage of a building) for any purpose, except as a caravan site or an open air market, on not more than 28 days in total in any calendar year, and the erection or placing of moveable structures on the land for the purposes of that use.

The England (2015) and Wales (1995) GPDOs have additional restrictions: motor car and motor cycle racing and markets can only be 14 days per year; the provision cannot be used to create caravan sites or display advertising; and there are additional restrictions on temporary change of use in Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The England (2015) GPDO has a series of additional temporary classes, including one (E) for nine months of commercial film-making.

Part 5 of all three GPDOs gives planning permission for some types of caravan and camp sites controlled by the 1960 Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act, which I discuss in the next section.

Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act

The previous laws establish the planning permission system. The 1960 Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act is instead concerned with the licensing of caravan and camping sites by local authorities, and applies to England, Scotland, and Wales.

The act defines caravan in section 29(1) as:

caravan” means any structure designed or adapted for human habitation which is capable of being moved from one place to another (whether by being towed, or by being transported on a motor vehicle or trailer) and any motor vehicle so designed or adapted, but does not include – (a) any railway rolling stock which is for the time being on rails forming part of a railway system, or (b) any tent;

and caravan site is defined in section 1(4) in a way which is much wider than the conventional, commercial caravan sites we usually see:

the expression “caravan site” means land on which a caravan is stationed for the purposes of human habitation and land which is used in conjunction with land on which a caravan is so stationed.

Due to the wording of Part 5 of the GPDO, some activities allowed by the Caravan Sites act get automatic planning permission too. In particular, the first class (A or 16) in each of the three GPDOs gives planning permission for exemptions 2 to 10 in the First Schedule of the 1960 Caravan Sites act, which don’t require caravan site licenses from the local authority. Four of these exemptions which may be of interest to woodland owners:

  • The main one is “a site licence shall not be required for the use of land as a caravan site for the accommodation during a particular season of a person or persons employed on land in the same occupation, being land used for the purposes of forestry (including afforestation).”
  • In other circumstances, one caravan at a time can be brought onto a property to stay for one or two nights, provided that caravans for human habitation are not on the property for more than 28 nights in the previous twelve months.
  • More usefully, for properties of at least 5 acres, up to three caravans can stay for multiple nights, as long as caravans for human habitation are not on the property for more than 28 nights in the previous twelve months.
  • There are exemptions to create conventional caravan sites, approved by registered caravan clubs. If you’re interested in doing this, do a Google search for “starting a camp site” and look for the many guides published online by these clubs and farmers’ websites.

Government can further restrict these exemptions but I’m not aware of this happening. The 1960 Caravan Sites act has been heavily amended over the years, in different ways following devolution, but mostly this has been to regulate caravan sites used to provide long term mobile homes rather than recreational caravans or temporary accommodation for workers.

Scottish hutting

The 2014 Scottish Planning Policy is not legally binding but is a statement of what local authorities are expected to put in their local plans, and how ministers and their planning reporters are likely to rule if local authority planning refusals are appealed. Section 79 says “Plans should set out a spatial strategy which … where appropriate, sets out policies and proposals for leisure accommodation, such as holiday units, caravans, and huts”. The glossary defines huts as

A simple building used intermittently as recreational accommodation (ie. not a principal residence); having an internal floor area of no more than 30m2; constructed from low impact materials; generally not connected to mains water, electricity or sewerage; and built in such a way that it is removable with little or no trace at the end of its life. Huts may be built singly or in groups.

It’s important to note that this is not any kind of permitted development in the style of the GPDOs. It’s guidance about how to respond when a full planning permission application is received.

Planning conditions

When applying for planning permission, it is possible to accept conditions on what can be done with land, which may also bind future owners. These may remove permitted development rights, for instance. Any conditions like this should be discovered for buyers by their conveyancers when purchasing the land.

Non-planning restrictions

Other restrictions need to be borne in mind: building control which again involves councils and is primarily concerned with safety; restrictive covenants attached to the land itself and created in the contract(s) by which it has been sold; protections of Sites of Special Scientific Interest; felling licenses from the Forestry Commissions (England or Scotland) or Natural Resources Wales; Tree Preservation Orders created by councils to protect individual trees or whole woods.

Further reading