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President's Blog September 2017

Date: 7/9/2017

Every day LPA's are dealing with complex planning issues in diverse locations all across the country. Whilst many of those debates are focused upon the future of our major urban conurbations, as someone who lives and works in the countryside, I think it is important for us to also appreciate the nature of the planning issues that are prevalent within our rural areas.

Many people's perceptions are that our countryside is still a haven of tranquillity compared to the bustle of modern urban living. In reality, the situation is somewhat different with England's rural areas now being home to around 18% of the country's population and providing for about 15% of the country's jobs. However all is not well and there are key issues that do need to be addressed.

As it is everywhere, housing is a major issue and specifically with regard to the sustainability of rural communities. There are particular concerns about the general availability of, and access to, rural housing opportunities and regarding to the related affordability of much of that housing. Whilst considerable amounts of rural employment is still related to agriculture, and associated food production, there is also more diversity with knowledge based and creative industries operating from the countryside. Home working and the re-use of rural buildings for employment are also becoming increasingly attractive as communications continue to improve. But there are significant issues regarding the provision and retention of rural services. Because of changes in the ways that people now live, and look to interact, it can be a challenge to sustain rural communities and keep smaller local services viable. There are multiple examples of village schools, shops and pubs that are struggling.

In response, I consider that the Government is being genuine in seeking to recognise the importance of issues and in its related commitment to ensuring that the planning system is responsive to the changing needs of those communities. However in my opinion there is a delicate balance to be achieved, between safeguarding what we would all consider to be the essential characteristics of our countryside, and allowing for appropriate forms of economic and housing growth.

However there is a specific challenge in the way that the Government are currently seeking to achieve that essential balance. The NPPF has sought to encourage and facilitate the provision of more rural housing and, as a response to perceived need to streamline the planning system in order to allow development to happen, the Government has correspondingly sought to increase the range of permitted development rights available to rural landowners.

Specifically I consider that the established parameters surrounding the conversion of agricultural buildings to new dwellings have and are becoming unbalanced. If you don't work in a rural area you may not be aware of it, but the permitted development rights, as set out in Class Q of the GPDO now allow, subject to some limited interpretations, most types of agricultural buildings to be converted to up to three new dwellings without the need for planning permission (and this may potentially increase to five).

Whilst I think that we would agree that the appropriate use of permitted development rights can be an effective tool, to deal with relatively uncontentious issues, I'm not sure that they can be readily applied to the complexity of issues that can be/are associated with the appropriateness of new housing developments in the open countryside.

The context for this position is that in its response to the 2016 Rural Planning Review, POS strongly supported the principle that appropriate rural buildings could be converted in order to help local communities proactively meet their housing needs. However in making that response POS noted that residential developments in the countryside, if they are not carefully planned, could by default harm the intrinsic character of that which we all would want to safeguard.

Accordingly POS argued that, whilst it would be entirely right for the presumption in favour of sustainable development to be applied to the re-use of rural buildings, it would be inappropriate for residential conversion permitted development rights to be further extended. In essence, because of the potential harm that could be caused by poor quality developments, I'm convinced that we need to ensure that we can continue to have the opportunity to use the local planning process to balance the need for sustainable development with the wider public interest.

Against that backdrop it's clear that rural authorities also need to be creative in their thinking in order to help sustain rural communities. Indeed, in our new Local Plan, my own authority is looking to positively allow for more homes to be built in our rural areas. This would be via sensitive infilling, the targeted re-use of previously developed land and innovatively, where a community wants to support additional development for the good of that community (whether or not that aspiration is enshrined in a Neighbourhood Plan).

In conclusion, for those of us working in rural areas, I think there is an intrinsic need for effective local planning processes to help shape and guide the development that is needed to sustain our rural communities. Good planning can be such an effective tool - let's all make sure that we utilise it in the best ways possible.

Steve Ingram, President 2017/18

Steve Ingram President 17_18_web.jpg

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