Unusually, government is listening to the people and may actually decide not to dilute planning controls in our protected landscapes.
Last year the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) consulted on proposals to introduce permitted development rights for redundant agricultural buildings throughout England (‘Greater flexibilities for change of use’, paras 32-38). That means allowing barns and other outbuildings to be converted into residential properties without the need for planning permission.
The proposals included the demolition of buildings and the construction of up to three dwellings of 150 square metres each on the same footprint, creating mini-housing estates in open countryside.
When you think of the 4,500 field barns which characterise the Yorkshire Dales National Park, you can see what a horrific proposal this is. Add the infrastructure—vehicular access and parking, power-lines and lighting not to mention the noise and traffic—and the national park’s special qualities are destroyed.
And—so typical of this government—the proposals were made with no evidence to show they were needed. These properties would not be available for local people on tight budgets as they would not be covered by the national park authorities’ policies on local occupancy. Average house-prices in national parks are already significantly higher than those of the region. A free for all on redundant agricultural buildings will not solve any housing problem.
And it’s not just the Yorkshire Dales—most of our national parks and AONBs have such redundant buildings, which are part of the landscape and character of the place. Certainly we have lovely old barns in the Chilterns which have been suburbanised and gussied-up, and become an eyesore, and that’s with planning controls. Imagine the effect without them!
The Campaign for National Parks skilfully led the campaign against these changes and put the case to the planning minister Nick Boles, as well as writing a letter jointly with nine national park societies. National Parks England produced a robust response to the consultation, and the national park officers from Dartmoor, Exmoor and the Yorkshire Dales publicly criticised the plans.
Then Dr Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes, secured an adjournment debate on Monday 24 February. The debate makes interesting and encouraging reading or viewing (scroll to 21.52). Usually on these occasions, which start at about 10pm, there is only the person introducing the debate and the relevant minister, with perhaps one or two others drifting in and out. On this occasion, in addition to Sarah Wollaston and the planning minister Nick Boles, ten other Conservatives and one Democratic Unionist contributed. Nearly all spoke in favour of protecting our national parks and other special places from the terrible blight which would result from these changes.
Nick Boles gave us cause for hope. He concluded the debate by saying:
I recognise, however, and the government recognise, that national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty are so called for a reason and have a special status. It is a status we must respect, and it is important that we think hard and listen to the arguments put to us about the appropriateness of this measure in those areas. Although I cannot anticipate the government’s final position, I reassure you … that the government have heard the arguments loud and clear.
He did threaten to give what he called ‘a slightly stronger nudge’ to national park authorities (NPAs) in new planning guidance on the subject. This is totally unnecessary. As Graham Wall, former director of planning and community with the Dartmoor National Park Authority, says:
The NPAs have been dealing with proposals to convert redundant traditional agricultural buildings into dwellings for decades and have well thought-out policies to guide their decisions. In general, where a building is worth conserving and its conversion can be undertaken without detriment to its character and location, then permission is granted. The government and the civil servants at the DCLG or Defra do not know better than the NPAs and should be seeking their advice rather than imposing further guidance from above.
Let’s hope that DCLG really has listened and lets the authorities manage their own patch—not only in national parks and AONBs, but throughout England’s beautiful and varied landscapes.
On 6 March Nick Boles announced that the proposed change in permitted development rights will not apply in national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. The Campaign for National Parks has issued a press release. This certainly is excellent news, though I still fear for those important landscapes outside the designated areas.