Rural Planning Policy - a consultation response

THE MEDIUM-TERM - OPTION TWO

THE LONG-TERM OPTION THREE

A response to the consultation on:

Draft Planning Policy Statement (PPS) 7 - Sustainable Development in Rural Areas

Mark Fisher, 12 December 2003

THE MEDIUM-TERM - OPTION TWO

I welcome this revision of rural planning policy. In the medium-term, it has the potential to create a more positive approach in local planning authorities (LPA) towards a range of planning applications that are consistent with the recent emphasis on diversification in the rural business base (i.e. Rural Economies, PIU (1999); The Implementation of National Planning Policy Guidance (PPG7) in Relation to the Diversification of Farm Businesses, DTLR, October 2001; the Rural Enterprise Scheme of the ERDP; and many of the outcomes from Action Plans created for farmers in receipt of the Farm Business Advice Service, SBS and DEFRA).

This recent emphasis has also given rise to collections of good, supportive case studies such as contained in the guide produced by the Yorkshire and Humber Assembly, entitled MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR FARM: A guide to the planning system in the Yorkshire and Humber Region for farm based enterprises (2003). These types of regional (and hopefully also local) initiative should be encouraged, as they are essential adjuncts in stimulating LPAs to be less defensive and more creatively receptive to developments that promote and sustain economic viability in rural business.

An expected improvement in rural productivity from a more diverse business base (and thus contributing to delivering on PSA target 4) will support greater opportunity for local employment, reducing the trend for successive generations to leave their areas of birth and seek housing and work in urban areas. The identification of service centres for housing development is welcome (para. 3) but I also welcome the explicit encouragement in para.4 for LPAs to allow development away from these service centres to meet local housing needs, particularly in order to maintain the viability and vitality of smaller towns and villages. In particular, authorities should be supportive of small-scale development of this nature where it provides the most sustainable option in villages that are remote from, and have poor public transport links with, service centres. This is restated in para. 9.

Rural life has been blighted by the perception and often reality that it has been bought up by the affluent who in the process continue to raise the barrier of entry price (and see Rural Economies, PIU, 1999). I thus welcome the exhortation (para 14) that LPAs should take care to apply design criteria reasonably and not render necessary development in rural areas prohibitively expensive and unfeasible, particularly where restrictive policies and decisions would adversely affect the vitality of rural communities, and their ability to adapt to change.

The support also for development of new community services and facilities (paras. 7&8) is to be welcomed as a necessary overall coherency essential for sustainable communities. While we may now think of local shops in rural villages in terms of providing a community service (i.e. Vital Villages, Countryside Service) they are fundamentally businesses with a commercial imperative. LPAs understand this (a shop is a familiar commercial activity) even though it may not be a factor in their deliberations. LPAs should understand that rural development for diversification also has commercial imperatives, with the totality of the application designed to produce financial viability. LPAs reduce financial viability when the criteria they apply over-ride these commercial considerations.

I support the removal of local countryside designations from development plans (para. 25). These are often subjective or the result of special pleading. (I will address countryside designations later.)

I am aware that a number of responses to this consultation will offer amendments that point out duplications, inconsistencies and imbalances within this new policy statement. These will tend to enhance the final document, but they should not detract from what has been a broadening of overall approach to rural planning. I would thus support Option 2 as suitable in the Medium Term.

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THE LONG-TERM OPTION THREE

We lack a compelling view of the future of the English countryside. We need to review a number of visions/scenarios on a range of possible futures so that our current assumptions are tested. In relation to this, the DEFRA horizon scanning project (SD0303 reporting in 2004) is said to be exploring scenarios for what the countryside will look like 20 and 50 years ahead, and the implications for rural policy.

We suffer from a crushing received orthodoxy around landscapes and settlement that gives us the worst of all worlds. Our open countryside is dominated by agricultural use, smoothing out and indiscriminately diminishing the potential distinctiveness of local variation in ecology, and subsuming geological characteristic. Wild nature has to survive within and in spite of this agriculture, rather than having significant areas of existence untrammeled by human productive activity. Thus the commonplace distinction between urban and rural of artificiality is a falsity since our English landscapes are entirely the result of human transformation and centuries of management for our own ends.

Orthodoxy has it that open English countryside has an intrinsic beauty that merits protection. I disagree with this when our populace is denied any choice, or any opportunity to experience landscapes where wild nature has true dominion instead.

This orthodoxy also has it that we are a crowded, overpopulated nation. It would seem that this is an enforced density since the 80% of us that live in cities and towns of over 10,000 people occupy only 7% of our land, whereas the 20% making up the rural population enjoys occupation of 93% of our land (Our Towns and Cities: The Future the urban white paper, DETR, 2000). Historical flight for work to urban centres - and rural exclusion through creating a landless labour - may have instigated this, but it is planning policies (and land ownership patterns) that maintain it.

Green Belt designation is perhaps the archetype of this policy. Formulated with a best intention of minimising urban sprawl, its contemporary damaging effect is to create pressures that bring about a complete loss of urban open space and an increasing urban density. Thus the quality of urban life is diminished in protection of landscapes that may have no particular merit and are likely to have industrial histories in previous centuries (but even these can attract SLA designations). In may ways, these especially protected landscapes are thus failing to support the communities that they surround as they are denied from being responsive to the needs of those communities.

The Mid-Term Review of the CAP with its decoupling of subsidy payment from agricultural production has the potential to have a profound effect on the future of farming in England, and to the uses our landscapes are put to. While this has much to do with land ownership, legislation on countryside designation and the planning system can have an influence. In promoting a more diverse and functional use of our countryside, there is likely to be a significant proportion of it that will be broadly familiar to us in 50 years time. However, two strands of contemporary discussion on landscape use provide example for how that increased diversity and functional use can be brought about (for example see recent years issues of ECOS, the quarterly journal of the British Association of Nature Conservationists).

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Strand one

Wildlife should no longer in the future have to compete for existence alongside agriculture. We have perhaps past the point in England where true wilderness can re-exist in the English landscape (because of extirpation of species) but we should not use that as an excuse for failing to consider and implement a regeneration a rewilding of substantive areas of countryside, perhaps to an equivalence in area occupied by the urban population (some 2 million acres). In America, this is addressed by a Wilderness Act that enabled a national system of wilderness areas in federally (publicly) owned land, but has also spawned open space parks with a similar ethos at state and county level, the latter often purchased and supported through voluntary local taxation. Housing, agriculture and roadways are excluded from these areas and parks, but people hiking and walking can experience the real beauty of nature and have outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation (Wilderness Act, 1964).

There is nothing comparable to the Wilderness Act within the legislation enabling National Parks in England or the various other national landscape designations, nor in planning policy guidance (i.e. PPG 9: Nature Conservation or PPG 17: Planning for open space, sport and recreation). However, the Scottish planning system has recently given recognition to wild land in its guidance on Natural Heritage (NPPG 14): - it is defined as uninhabited and often relatively inaccessible countryside where the influence of human activity on the character and quality of the environment has been minimal.

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Strand two

A landless urban population has little ability to provide for itself through self-reliance, or through small-scale commercial productive activity that can be more locally responsive than a national agricultural system. Access to land for new entrants to primary production that is focussed on local needs, that is based on low impact development and which may unleash the potential of a new range of smallholdings, is restrained by rural property prices and by the restrictions on new development, particularly since major urban areas are surrounded by Green Belt designation. This was addressed in a report entitled Low impact development and peri-urban productivity In SE Bradford, produced for the Sustainable Farmland Management Network of Bradford District (2000 obtainable from Rural Affairs, Policy Development Service, CBMDC). The issues have also been extensively reviewed in the report Sustainable Homes and Livelihoods in the Countryside produced by Chapter 7 and the PPG7 Reform Group.

The wording in PPS 7 of para. 17(i) could be taken to be supportive of the need for a greater range of small-scale sites of diverse primary production, while para. 17(ii) can allow for the fact that these types of smallholding often add value through craftwork and appropriate processing. However, the overall effect of the policy statement is unleavened by a consideration of the merits of low impact development associated with new small-scale productive holdings. If it is possible in the policy statement to have a favourable view on enterprises operating on a subsistence basis (para. 8) but which nonetheless provide wider benefits (e.g. in managing attractive landscapes or wildlife habitats) then it should also be possible to look favourably at embedding the ability of the rural planning system to recognise low impact development associated with new small scale rural enterprise. I commend to you the consultation response that will come from Chapter 7 and the PPG7 reform group.

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Conclusion

In the long term, rural planning policies must reflect and be levers for the type of future that we see for our countryside. We have perhaps been too monolithic in our acceptance of broadscale agriculture as being the major determinant, and within which everything else flows. It will remain, but the two strands described above can provide a balance to its overweening nature. Thus in the long term, I would support Option 3, particularly since it is warranted by the implications of CAP reform.

Mark Fisher, BSc DPhil

www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk