A proposed relaxation of planning laws could destroy irreplaceable landscapes in national parks and other protected areas. A debate by MPs revealed grounds for cautious optimism, reports Carey Davies - but we're not out of the woods yet.
It is only one passage in a consultation with the dry-sounding name ‘Greater Flexibilities for Change of Use.’ But it could have huge implications for landscapes we know and love.
In its current form, the measure would enable developers and landowners to convert or replace redundant farm buildings with up to three dwellings without having to seek planning permission.
The implications for national parks and AONBs, from Dartmoor to the Yorkshire Dales, could be immense. The Yorkshire Dales, for example, is estimated to have 6,000 barns eligible for demolition or construction under the plans, 4,000 of which sit alone in fields or remote pastures.
Many of them dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, these barns are as integral to the landscape of the Dales as its villages, rivers, limestone pavement or moorland, and in places like Swaledale are iconic. If only a fraction were converted into houses, with accompanying roads, electricity pylons and sewage systems, the impact could turn swathes of these unique and irreplaceable landscapes into ‘suburban’ environments.
National Park authorities themselves have voiced strong objections to the proposals, with the chair of the Yorkshire Dales authority labelling them “disastrous.”
The BMC has briefed MPs in the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the potential negative impact of the plans, and a meeting of the BMC Yorkshire Area earlier this month voted unanimously to oppose them in their current form. While members agreed on the need for social housing within National Parks, it was felt the proposals in the current form would likely create expensive ‘second homes’ instead of addressing the dearth in affordable places to live.
BMC Yorkshire Access Rep and former BMC president Dave Musgrove said: "If unopposed, this proposal will undoubtedly alter the scenic beauty of much of our upland landscape for ever.
"Where development is allowed with no requirement for planning consultation or agreement one significant consequence could be loss of several important access points for hill-walkers and climbers to open country, cliffs and fells as lanes and tracks leading to and beyond these old barns become gated, tarmac drives to private homes and gardens".
The issue was discussed on Monday in the House of Commons during an adjournment debate tabled by Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes, who recently opposed the plans in an article for the Guardian.
She said: “We should allow people to aspire to affordable housing. I absolutely agree that we need to build more homes, but we need to build homes that people can afford to live in. That is my concern.
“Within AONBs and the national parks—the measure will affect all 10 national parks—I fear that that will lead to the creation of more second homes and luxury homes, rather than the affordable housing that we need to breathe life into our rural communities. I hope that the Minister will also look at the unintended consequences.”
She also spoke about its potential impact on Dartmoor National Park, some of which falls within her constituency, saying the plans could affect up to 4,000 properties in Dartmoor and lead to the decline of agriculture.
Other MPs also expressed their concerns during the debate. Conservative MP for New Forest East Julian Lewis cited criticism of the plans by the New Forest National Park authority, while fellow Conservative MP for Arundel and South Downs Nick Herbert warned of losing the original purpose of national parks “if we allow the creation of a suburbia” within them and permit “new haciendas and gin palaces” instead of maintaining the park’s character and landscape.
No Labour or Liberal Democrat MPs were present.
In reply to MPs comments, Nick Boles said: “[It] is important that everybody is reassured that we are trying to be inventive in thinking about ways to reuse buildings that no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally designed, and to do so in a way that meets their maximum economic and social value.”
When pressed by MPs on whether there would be special exemption for national parks and other protected landscapes, Nick Boles referred to a recent meeting discussion he had had with the chairman of the Peak District National Park Authority, arranged by High Peak MP Andrew Bingham.
He continued: “That is one of four meetings I have had in the past month with National Parks England, the Campaign for National Parks in High Peak, a group of Members of Parliament who represent national parks, and a senior representative of the South Downs national park. This has been a genuine process of engagement with national parks and those who represent them and of understanding the particular issues.
“You know how much trouble I would get into, Mr Speaker, if I were to presume to anticipate the conclusion of a Government decision-making process and the securing of Cabinet clearance for such a decision. I can, nevertheless, point to the fact that in other areas where we have introduced an extended permitted development right, we have listened to the concerns raised and modified the original proposals, so I can reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes and all other hon. Members who have spoken.”
He went on to say that if the government did decide to exempt national parks and other protected landscapes from the changes, “it would nevertheless be important to encourage national parks to be positive about proposals for conversions of agricultural buildings that no longer fulfil a purpose in modern agriculture.”
Nick Boles appeared to be hinting there are plans to exempt national parks and AONBs from the changes, but we await the government’s final decision.
Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Mountaineering and former BMC Sports Fellow, David Rutley, made a contribution towards the end of the debate. He said: “In some, buildings are often very isolated—in the peaks, for example—but not so isolated elsewhere. Building and constructing on isolated barns, or whatever else, would be entirely inappropriate in one national park, but might be more appropriate in others where there is less space and geographic expanse to fill.”
Sarah Wollaston is to be congratulated for securing this issue as the subject of the adjournment debate and MPs are also to be commended for their questioning of Nick Boles. We await the outcome of the government's consultation.
Check out the BMC Landscape Charter, which sets out our role and responsibility in campaigning to protect landscapes from developments that may damage their character and detract from their recreational and amenity value.
Are you concerned about a development or construction in your area? Go along to your local BMC area meeting
and raise the issue there. If the majority of people at the meeting want to take it forward, the BMC will enable your local area to take action directly. We want to encourage more people to get involved in area meetings, raise issues and work effectively as a local group.
Alternatively you can leave details of planning applications and issues of concern on a dedicated area of the BMC community website