Planning changes: more detail needed to protect beauty of the countryside

The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) responded to planning changes announced by the Government on January 24 with concerns that without further safeguards and assurances, greater freedom to convert farm buildings will risk damaging the character and beauty of the countryside.

Communities and Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles has announced a wide-ranging loosening of planning controls.

These will remove the need to apply for planning permission to convert:

• redundant farm buildings into shops, restaurants, hotels and offices; and

• office space into housing (for up to 3 years).

CPRE is urging the Government to provide more detail about proposals to allow the conversion of farm buildings.

Farm buildings can already be put up without applying for planning permission.

Without clear conditions on when the new rights could be used, there is the danger of:

• unleashing on the countryside a wave of unsightly ‘barns’ that are intended to become houses at a later date; and

• increasing the amount of development and car traffic in rural areas by encouraging offices and shops to relocate from town centres.

Paul Miner, Senior Planning Campaigner for CPRE, said: “We are concerned that old farm buildings could be converted in completely inappropriate locations such as on narrow country lanes with poor access, and that the changes could be exploited by unscrupulous landowners to erect so-called ‘farm buildings’ which then become an office, and then a house without any planning oversight.

“This would be a clear break with established planning controls over sporadic development in the countryside.”

Landowners have used longstanding legal freedoms, dating back to the Second World War when Britain sought to be self-sufficient in food, to build large ‘agricultural barns’ without having to apply for full planning permission.

In some cases, these ‘barns’ have gradually grown or taken on the appearance of houses, which would need full planning permission.

For example, investigations by Government planning inspectors found that:

• In Salfords, Surrey a large castle was hidden within a shield of straw bales topped with tarpaulin.

The High Court found that this was a deliberate attempt to build a new house by deception.

• In Wadhurst, East Sussex an individual moved into a barn and sought to conceal his ‘house’ from planning officers by blacking out the windows, moving his bed into a van, placing animal bedding and feed in his ‘bedroom’ and rabbit hutches in his ‘living room’.

• In Weymouth, Dorset, another case has been reported where a man converted a barn in a field on the edge of the town into a house.

The heating and hot water boilers were hidden in small barn owl boxes and a normal domestic style front door was concealed behind a traditional barn door.

CPRE welcomes the changes encouraging conversion of office space into new housing, provided local communities can retake control over this if circumstances justify it.

But the Government should ensure that developers report the amount of new housing created in each case to the local authority.

The local authority should then be allowed to count this against the planned new housing target for the area, so that precious countryside is not unnecessarily built on.

For all the latest news see tomorrow’s (Thursday, February 14) Echo.