Planning issues in the rural sector

Under-resourced authorities are refusing rural development for fear of compromising designated areas, but must take a more creative and nuanced approach if communities are to be sustainable

Author: Judith Norris

06 March 2020

At the RICS Planning and Development conference last year, Matthew Taylor, the author of the 2008 review of the rural economy and affordable housing, responded to a question about the difficulty of obtaining planning permission for both residential and commercial development in small rural communities, saying that all the tools to allow this are now found in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

My day-to-day observation, having worked in the rural sector for many years, suggests that despite three iterations of the NPPF since 2012 there are still many planning issues to overcome, and little progress has been made in understanding sustainability and development in rural areas. The challenges that remain include the way in which policy is interpreted, the lack of regional planning, and – more controversially – the impact of landscape designations.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) paper Sustainable Villages – Making Rural Communities Fit for The Future points out that planning authorities deem more than 2,000 villages across England unsustainable. The CLA argues, however, that planning authorities do not include broadband when considering the sustainability of a settlement, yet Ofcom has identified that people in rural areas use the internet more than their urban counterparts. Internet access reduces isolation, opens up access to many services including banking, shopping and education.

Many local plans list these more remote, less well-serviced settlements as unsuitable for new housing or other development, meaning they are condemned to decline. This approach completely ignores the NPPF statement that 'where there are groups of smaller settlements, development in one village may support services in a village nearby'. It also overlooks the comment elsewhere in the framework that 'sustainable transport solutions will vary between urban and rural areas, and this should be taken into account for both plan-making and decision-making'.

These more positive policies are also overlooked by planning inspectors when examining local plans and making decisions. The Planning Inspectorate is in disarray, lacking inspectors who have a rural focus and some appeals lasting years, so little help is available from there.

In one sense Taylor is right; the NPPF supports rural development, but the interpretation of it is dogged by a lack of understanding of the way that rural communities and their economies work. The CLA paper refers to 'social capital', which is defined as the network of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling it to function efficiently. This is often a feature of rural settlements, and a fundamental determinant of sustaining social capital is the availability of affordable and market housing.

"The Planning Inspectorate lacks inspectors with a rural focus, so little help is available from there"

The countryside contributes about a fifth of England's total economic activity from many sources: some minor, such as the farmer who owns a relatively small area but rents other land to run a sheep flock that provides just about enough money to live; others much larger, such as Glyndebourne opera in the South Downs National Park that contributes about £16m each year to the area.

Designated and undesignated areas

Landscape designations such as areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) and national parks exacerbate an already difficult set of circumstances. Preparation of local plans is supposed to follow the NPPF, so the temptation is to put as much development as possible away from designated areas. However, this leaves gaps in rural communities in terms of housing and commercial development, while the undesignated areas are on the receiving end of often indiscriminate bulk housing, commercial development, Travellers, mineral and waste planning and renewable energy projects.

My recent experiences of projects in the South Downs have been dispiriting. A modest plan to develop 12 bespoke holiday lodges in the national park, which is short of tourist accommodation, took four years to get through the system, with the application costing about £100,000 to present. Furthermore, despite countless reports, the resulting permission was subject to a morass of conditions that added more time and expense to discharge.

Another project involved an architect-designed studio for a respected local furniture maker using locally sourced timber on a derelict, relatively isolated brownfield site, which had been an unauthorised Gypsy site. The application was refused because the site was not viewed as sustainable.

The Landscapes review urges more power and money for AONBs and national parks but the European Landscape Convention's view that all landscapes matter is more balanced. I believe that designations are leading to decisions that do not reflect the needs of rural communities, and more often favour the views of the articulate elite who do not live and work in the countryside.

Lack of strategic planning is central to many of these problems. The idea set out in the NPPF of supporting the development of new towns and villages to meet the need for larger settlements is causing considerable concern in many quarters, because so often there is no infrastructure to support viable communities.

There has never been a greater need for regional planning to deal with renewable energy, water, minerals, waste, drainage, roads, and possibly landscape-scale biodiversity projects. This broader view is surely critical to sustainable development and gives a framework for future growth, rather than piecemeal offerings that often create half-hearted solutions with unintended consequences.

The heart of the matter is proper resourcing of authorities. Planning should be properly rewarded and respected because it is the beginning of so many things. Sadly, the profession struggles to attract bright and enthusiastic recruits. Planning, including rural planning, should be an exciting, creative and rewarding job encompassing a range of disciplines such as landscape architects, designers, economists, agronomists, ecologists and planners, and not reduced to a tick-box exercise. Sustainable development requires an understanding of a wide range of issues and a willingness to recognise that sustainable communities are not necessarily on a bus route.

Judith Norris FRICS is a rural planning expert at the Rural Planning Practice

Related competencies include: Planning and development management, Sustainability

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