I’ve been getting rather agitated recently about a planning application submitted for a new house in our village. As new-comers we’ve kept our heads down, particularly as our neighbours have been so generous and welcoming to us and our unconventional house, but this proposal exemplifies a superficially benign type of development, the cumulative effect of which is a creeping erosion of the character of the countryside.
The setting is stunning, a south facing slope with long views across open farmland and its nearest neighbour is 100m away. The proposed house would replace a building that is currently very prominent in the landscape and visible from a mile away. In many ways the replacement would be inoffensive, a house that any developer might build. Many people would love a home like this and I’m sure it would be very pleasant. My issue is that rather than trying to fit into its rural setting it would look like something out of a suburban housing estate. It is located beyond the end of the village in open country so it would have an effect on the character of the area from which it can be seen, pushing it along the scale from an agricultural landscape to a more urban one.
The most crass aspect of the design is that the elevation facing the road is proposed to be local stone but the other three sides are to be rendered. This might sound a minor offense but to just have a stone facade facing the road implies that the views from elsewhere are not important. The house on the site at the moment is completely rendered and painted white which makes it very prominent so replacing it offers the chance to build something more appropriate to its setting. At least the existing house has some integrity. Does it only matter what it looks like from the road? Do people not walk across the countryside any more? There are plenty of rural buildings that have a finer facade on the street elevation than on the other sides but these tend to have been later alterations and are part of the history of the house. Here using render instead of stone is obviously a means of keeping down costs but in such a visible location surely a building should be designed as a 3-dimensional composition to be seen in the round, not as a wild west stage set.
I found another example today while out walking. It doesn’t have a wild west facade but it sticks out like a sufficiently sore thumb to merit a mention here.
I looked up the planning application when I got home and the planning officer’s report says “Whilst this is a relatively large increase over the existing house it is considered to be appropriate in design terms and will not result in a property that is unduly prominent. The site is extremely well screened and it is unlikely that the resultant building would be publicly visible.” Not visible from where? It’s true you only see the roof from the road, but isn’t it just as important what affect it has on the landscape when seen from footpaths and the surrounding hills? In some ways these views are more important because the motorist is already in a partially urbanised zone on the road whereas people take to the footpaths to get away from built-up areas and signs of development.
The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that planning should “always seek to secure high quality design” (paragraph 17) and that “Permission should be refused for development of poor design that fails to take the opportunities available for improving the character and quality of an area and the way it functions” (Paragraph 64). ie: It is not sufficient to just match an existing inappropriate design but that the applicant should seek to improve the situation. When I pushed the planning officer on this issue I was told that the planning inspectors do not give much weight to design and there would have to be a very good reason why it was at odds with local character or worse than the existing. The policies of improvement and high quality design do not seem to carry any weight at all. Central government policy is absolutely pro-development and applications are approved unless there is a very strong reason why not.
On the issue of the character of rural areas the NPPF states that “the planning system should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by protecting and enhancing valued landscapes” (paragraph 109). When I asked which landscapes are ‘valued’ I was told they have to have a designation as a National Park or an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). AONBs cover about 14% of England & Wales and National Parks around 10.7%. Urban areas account for 9.7% so that leaves 65.5% of the area of England & Wales which is not ‘valued’. Effectively then, under current government policy the planners have no means of protecting or encouraging enhancement of most of the countryside. The current justification for this attitude is that the government can’t do anything to hinder development that might provide an economic boost. The way development occurs in the UK relies on the power of the elected councils, through their planning departments to resist where necessary the desires of landowners if they conflict with the interests of the wider public. Without enforceable policies in place they are powerless to prevent or modify undesirable development that will have a permanent effect on the character of our country. Is this what we want?