Blot on the rural landscape

Current planning rules are failing to stop farmland being divided and sold off piece by piece to the detriment of rural areas, writes John Robertson.

The growing problem facing local authorities in controlling the spread of speculative land plots on farmland was highlighted last month when an MP put forward an amendment to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill seeking a clampdown.

In some parts of the country, companies specialising in "leisure plots" are buying up agricultural or forestry land, sometimes beside towns but often in isolated rural locations. This land is then split into up to 100 smaller plots and advertised for sale as an investment for leisure use or as a potential site for new homes.

The sales details normally note that planning permission may be required for certain types of development on these plots and make no claims that this will necessarily be forthcoming. But the vendors highlight strong future demand for housing in the South East to hint at the longer-term potential of these plots.

Adverse effects start to appear when a buyer occupies the plot, encloses it with walls, fences or fast-growing hedges, parks a caravan on it or starts to put up buildings or create large hardstandings. Huts, livestock shelters or stables for purported agricultural or forestry uses of the plot then appear. In some cases, planting leylandii trees or putting up walls or fences to establish boundaries is encouraged or even required by the seller.

In some cases, development is followed by retrospective planning applications for mobile homes or other structures. Such developments can individually or collectively change the character of rural areas. Their overall effect can be to create the appearance of a shanty town in the countryside or near existing housing. Even without such works, simple neglect by disillusioned owners can produce unsightly areas of land.

At present, this activity is focused in the South East and East Anglia, with examples in Essex, Kent, Hertfordshire and Suffolk. But it is spreading.

Cases have been reported in Herefordshire and Wiltshire. One company is marketing plots in 74 sites across the country. Often these plots are in green belts, areas of outstanding natural beauty or other high-quality landscape or adjoin nature conservation sites.

Such effects are being taken seriously. One MP describes these activities as an attempt to "smash the development control system". Isle of Wight MP Andrew Turner's amendment (Planning, 17 October, p1) proposed bringing them within the definition of development by requiring planning permission for the subdivision of any agricultural holding into units of less than one hectare for sale purposes.

But the problem is not easy to control through current legislation. In itself, subdivision of land does not constitute development. Means of enclosure up to 2m high can be permitted development under part 2, schedule 2 of the General Permitted Development Order (GPDO) 1995, while temporary uses of land are allowed for up to 28 days a year under part 4.

Although agricultural holdings have rights under part 6 for necessary buildings and tracks, the minimum holding size for this is 0.4ha, which ought to exclude many leisure plots. While caravans can normally only be placed on a site for two days under part 5 permitted development rights, monitoring this period may be difficult, while even intermittent use over many plots is unsightly. Laying hardstandings and placing caravans on a plot permanently can be enforced against because planning permission is required, but long delays often result from appeals.

Existing legislation offers some other tools. Under section 102 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, councils can require discontinuance of a specific use of land and removal of structures, but this requires the secretary of state's approval. Under section 215, authorities can require proper maintenance of land where amenity is affected, but this procedure takes time and it is not clear whether it could require removal of enclosures built under permitted development rights.

A number of other approaches were considered in the recent review of permitted development rights commissioned by the ODPM (Planning, 19 September, p16). Article 4(1) directions have drawbacks; they are slow to prepare, require ministerial approval, cannot be applied retrospectively and carry the risk of having to compensate developers. Despite this, 16 article 4 directions have been confirmed in the East of England to deal with leisure plots in the past year. One direction went through within seven days, illustrating that urgent action is possible.

This tool could be strengthened through a streamlined type of article 4 direction that would not require ministerial approval and would allow removal without compensation of specific permitted development rights.

These could apply to previously undeveloped land or sites that were formerly part of an active agricultural holding. But they could still be difficult to apply quickly enough to be effective.

If new legislation is needed, amending the GPDO to remove specific permitted development rights appears justified by this serious and growing problem.

This would mainly be necessary for part 2 rights, both for means of enclosure and access. But some owners may still cause damage by misapplying permitted development rights, while the cumulative effect of activity within these rights could change the character of an area.

Any changes to the control regime need to be carefully targeted to avoid removing rights for other land holdings that cause no problems, such as a fence around the curtilage of a home or a genuine farmer enclosing a small area of land for keeping sheep. Permitted development rights under a number of parts of the GPDO could be cut back on previously undeveloped land or undeveloped land that was formerly, but is no longer, part of an agricultural holding or in agricultural use.

Given the complexity of the alternatives, it is perhaps not surprising that Turner's proposed amendment sought to tackle the issue at source, by controlling subdivision and speculation, rather than subsequent development by individuals on their own plots. But this solution may not be enough and it could restrict genuine agricultural smallholdings. It is also unclear how well reasons for refusing permission for subdivision would stand up to appeal when the impacts are uncertain.

There is probably a need for a range of parallel measures, including some restriction of permitted development rights, which can be tailored to particular situations. It will be interesting to see whether the act, which receives Royal Assent next spring, contains any effective measures to deal with this growing problem.

- John Robertson is a senior associate at Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners and led the permitted development rights review for the ODPM. The views expressed here are his own.

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