An open letter on planning from CLA President Harry Cotterell

16 November 2013

Next Tuesday the Government will unveil the final version of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), and in his Budget yesterday Chancellor George Osborne strongly indicated that it will still promote growth and retain a powerful "presumption in favour of sustainable development" so the default answer to development in rural areas should be "yes".

I am delighted the Government appears to be sticking to its guns despite boisterous objections by the National Trust, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and other environmental groups. However, the devil is so often in the detail and we await the publication of final NPPF on Tuesday with the hope that the Framework has not been watered down in other respects.


Why do farmers and land managers feel so strongly about this? It is because sensible and well-designed building is essential for the survival of rural businesses which, in turn, keep rural communities alive.


The beautiful landscape that people appreciate so greatly when they venture into the countryside exists only because that land is managed well and supported by agriculture and other rural economic activity. This wouldn't happen if the countryside were not a place where people are able to live and work.


When the Government published the draft NPPF last July, the knee-jerk reaction by some of the bodies opposing it gave the impression there was a real risk of the countryside in England being turned into one vast slab of concrete.


The Framework was lambasted as a "developers' charter" with no safety net to protect the landscape from greedy builders. National Trust Chairman Sir Simon Jenkins ranted that the proposals were "a disaster" and represented the "biggest issue for the countryside since the war". Listening to this kind of rhetoric, you could be forgiven for thinking the existing planning system is the epitome of perfection. Alas, nothing could be further from the truth.


Our crumbling planning regime is hugely bureaucratic, complex and expensive, comprising more than 1,000 pages of planning policy and an additional eight volumes of regulations.


Moreover, it is a highly negative system, acting as a brake on appropriate and much-needed development in the countryside. It comes as no surprise that planning permissions are at their lowest level in five years.


The existing system makes it horribly complicated to provide new housing or business premises, the lifeblood of rural communities. Many firms are so put off by the sheer time, effort and expense of making an application that they simply don't bother. For those few who persevere, it can be a long fight.


For instance, it took Michael Shuttleworth, owner of Hathersage Hall in Derbyshire, 23 years to get planning permission to convert his six unused farm buildings and to construct two new buildings to create 13 offices for local businesses.


Furthermore, the current system illustrates what a powerful safety net the "sustainable" in "sustainable development" has become. Planning authorities often reject reasonable applications, say to convert unusable barns into business premises, purely because there is no local bus service. Is there any truly rural area with a bus service that is ideal for local people?


There is also little consistency in planning consents. One barn conversion may achieve planning consent because it is thought close enough to other properties to form part of a "village" while a very similar proposal to convert another barn, just metres down the road, is refused.


Governments of all political hues have recognised our planning system is moribund. The last government tried to fix the system by asking councils to write their planning policies in a different way. Unfortunately, many local authorities failed to adapt to this complicated new approach, leaving their planning policy in a no man's land, which led to automatic refusal of many applications to avoid possible blunders being made. 


The impact of this has been to thwart sensible, well-designed and potentially beneficial building in the countryside.


So, the Government is trying to rescue the planning system by reducing the amount of policy and regulation, and trusting local authorities to give sensible planning applications the green light.


Beyond a shadow of doubt the public debate on the NPPF became over-emotional and polarised with calls to "save the green belt" and fears about development on a "massive scale" eclipsing the case for ensuring that the economic viability of the countryside is not harmed. The detail of the debate got lost in the hysterical rhetoric.


Rural areas need opportunities for business growth and new jobs and affordable homes even more than urban areas. The NPPF is the Government's attempt to balance economic growth and conservation in the countryside. We fully support this.


Even National Trust Director General Dame Fiona Reynolds showed a little chink in her armour, acknowledging in a national newspaper article that there is a "place for development, including more housing", and adding that the Trust itself is, when appropriate, a developer and "sometimes even on green field sites".


We trust the final NPPF, when published next Tuesday, will foster new and profitable rural businesses and help rural communities to survive, thrive and make a major contribution to the country's economic well-being