The proposal involved farm buildings, a farm shop, teaching facilities and five dwellings on a 28ha holding that had at one point been the centre of pioneering work by a founder member of the Soil Association. However, all the existing farmhouses had later been sold off and enforcement action had been taken against various structures and caravans at the site.
The association's intention was to create a low-impact sustainable co-operative community operating and living on an organic and ecologically integrated farm. The inspector considered that the proposed buildings, access and car parking would noticeably urbanise a sylvan rural landscape protected by a local designation.
In considering the agricultural justification for the scheme, he accepted that a holding of this size should be capable of providing a viable business.
However, he noted that the proposal was not put forward in these terms and found no indication of what the holding might be capable of producing, how many people it could support and what sort of input was required for that to be achieved.
Apart from the fact that no management plan or business strategy had been put forward, he found it incredible that a need for five dwellings could be claimed while at the same time the people supposedly supporting the venture were systematically severing every existing structure that might contribute to meeting it.
The inspector took into account the fact that the holding had been the core of a pioneering organic farming enterprise in the past and government policy seeking to encourage a diverse and sustainable farming industry.
He agreed that an organic and ecologically integrated farm had the potential to meet those policy aims.
He referred to the court judgements in Petter and Harris v Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions and Chichester District Council (1999) and Dartmoor National Park Authority v First Secretary of State (Planning, 7 February, p20), which supported the argument that the normal functional or financial tests should not be applied slavishly in such circumstances. However, he considered that the evidence required in terms of the adaptation of these tests to suit the special circumstances of the project was completely lacking. A promise that the co-operative would pursue a sustainable lifestyle was not an adequate substitute, he concluded.
The inspector concluded that if the special characteristics of the proposed farming operation were to justify permission, a legal entity such as a charitable trust that could control operations on and occupation of the land would need to enter into clearly enforceable undertakings. No such arrangement was in place and the land remained in the freehold of the company that had operated a pattern of disposal in the past, he noted.
DCS No: 41752032; Inspector: David Cullingford; Inquiry.
COMMENT: This proposal clearly stood no chance of winning planning permission given the lack of practical supporting information and adequate safeguards.
However, the case also shows that there is a way forward for projects with similar aims that could make a valuable contribution to many of the policy directions that the government purports to espouse. It may be that for such co-operatives to be acceptable within a planning framework rightly concerned with preventing sporadic development in the countryside, some form of government agency needs to be charged with the task of promoting and regulating suitable projects in planned locations.