A (Not-So) Short Treehouse Planning Tale

Once upon a time, a boy wanted a treehouse.
A reasonable request for a dreamer. Somewhere outside of the confounds of reality, where he could manifest his ambitions.

It all began a long, long time ago, in the year 2011. The boy, a man, myself, started a glamping agency called Quality Unearthed soon we began working with the guys behind Bensfield Treehouse. At the time, their tree house had been used as an office and through discussions with us, converted it into a successful tree house holiday let. At the same time, we were working with other canvas-based glamping structures but the income from the various other structure types was not a patch on the income from a tree house. This got us thinking. Could we build some treehouses?

The first barrier to overcome was the land (and the trees!). We live near St Davids in Pembrokeshire, a wind-blown county with a shortage of suitable trees. It surprises many to learn that having the perfect tree is not necessarily a prerequisite, as most modern treehouses are structurally supported by the ground, not the tree itself. We invited out a company to advise and quote on construction of two tree houses on our land.

The site had two main issues; firstly there is a mainline electricity cable that feeds the north of the county running perfectly at eye level of any potential treehouse. Not the aesthetic we wanted. We asked for quotes from Western Power to put the cable underground, which came back with a not so modest price tag of £157,200.87. I have never understood why the 87p! This cost scuppered tree house project Version 1.

Every cloud has a silver lining though, as the location in West Wales wasn’t perfect. Most of our guests were based on the South East, and with an average length of stay of 2.8 nights, it was a long way to travel.

At this stage, I decided to place a small advert in Farmers Weekly. Those guys have land, right? In some of the most beautiful places in the UK, right? But would anyone want a strange dreadlocked man to come along and sequester their trees for a hair-brained idea of building luxury treehouses? Probably not, but the ad was cheap, so place the ad we did.

Much to my surprise, we had dozens of responses from land owners ranging from early adopters of glamping, to large estate owners and small holding famers. We vetted a shortlist and subsequently visited the locations. Our brief was to find somewhere within two hours of a major conurbation, London ideally, with a south-facing aspect, beautiful views and if possible, an element of water such as a river or lake.

We settled on a beautiful estate in West Sussex. The estate had high sustainability credentials and a forward-thinking management team who were relaxed and indeed enthusiastic about the idea. What appealed to the landowner was the fact that these treehouses would be very high quality, aesthetically suited to the estate, and provide an extra accommodation option to service the weddings already taking place. Also, there was good income potential from renting a patch of land that was otherwise generating very little. A win/win situation.

The agreement, in summary, was for Quality Unearthed to pay a land rent of £3,000 per annum, inflation-linked, plus service costs, on a 20 year lease with break clauses after 10 years. The landowner’s responsibility was to help with planning, though not the costs, and to provide electricity and water to the tree house.

Planning for a treehouse is much like planning any other structure. We required ground surveys, environmental surveys, tree surveys; from which we were able to get to the exciting bit of designing the tree house itself. We had our application ready to submit, and then came the news. Connection of electricity was going to cost over £30k. The bulk of this was payment to the local electricity board for the physical connection. Understandably, this was not financially viable for the estate given our terms, and so the project was pulled at the 11th hour.

Enter treehouse site version 3 and some new characters to this tale. As well as Quality Unearthed I am also director of Quality Cottages and through this role I came to meet Nick House, former Managing Director of Rural Retreats and Wow House. With his extensive knowledge of the holiday let market, we decided to team up in our hunt for a new location. Plans also developed to build 7 tree houses, as the returns become more exciting, indeed viable where we could share the infrastructure set up costs across multiple units. Through Nick we engaged an estate management company responsible for oversight of multiple high-end estates across the Cotswolds and Oxfordshire who pointed us in the direction of Cornbury Park Estate.

The estate is just outside of Oxford, has beautiful land, good access to London and other midland cities, the area has existing tourist demand and the landowner was amenable to alternative uses of his land. The first thing to get clear when going down this route are heads of terms, i.e. the general agreement as to what a contract would look like if planning is passed and the land developed. During this process, we also engaged a land survey to give a view on two potential sites we were considering. One site was ruled out due to weak root structure of the trees. The second site had been used by the American Military in WW2, and provided a brown field site, despite its appearances of green field, which we also reasoned would be more attractive to planners.

Dealing with the Oxfordshire Council Planning department went relatively well from the start, partly due to an existing good relationship with the land owner. However, it was a very slow process. Surveys were done, only to be told the time of year for the survey was wrong, so had to be re-done in the summer, this cost us nearly 6 months. Owing to the woodland location, we also had to plan for access for a fire engine and for fire hydrants for their hoses. Therefore, we carefully planned the location of the tree houses such that each one does not look upon another, yet they are all reachable by fire brigade hoses.

We submitted final plans in mid 2016. The plans were deferred from the planners to committee, which is essentially a gathering of local councillors, where you are asked to present your case. Nick and I, Nick being the far more respectable in appearance, scanned the room to suss out the jury. A collective of grey-haired gentleman, who all seemed to relish the responsibility and certainly found a smorgasbord of complaints during the preceding applications to ours. This didn’t bode well. When the time came we presented our impassioned argument for the tree house project, from both a business case and a personal case. Six years of my life had already gone into this…

When an elderly and very well-spoken councillor stood to speak, a sudden jolt of fear ran through me, what was he going to say? He stood and proceeded to give an equally impassioned defence of our project, insisted this was excellent for the county, and that should we be required to conduct any additional environmental surveys (as was being sought by the planners) he would himself conduct them, walking stick and all!
The councillors voted unanimously for the project.

It has taken a year and half still since the councillors voted for this. The delay has been mostly down to legal wranglings over our responsibility to move a footpath, at the request of a neighbour, so as to avoid noise. However not owning the land of the proposed new path, our hands were a tad tied. Thankfully now complete.

So it’s taken nearly seven years from concept to being able to break ground, which is expected after the summer. We are looking for investors to join us on this journey, so if getting involved with seven luxury treehouses appeals, but the planning process doesn’t, feel free to get in touch.

My advice to others; treehouses continue to be as popular as ever. Manage expectations when it comes to pace of progress and enjoy the journey.

About the author:
Quality Unearthed is an alternative accommodation agency representing unusual places to stay throughout the UK. Started in 2011 by founder Tim Rees, it is based on bringing people into beautiful buildings in beautiful locations and allowing the time to connect to nature and themselves. www.qualityunearthed.co.uk