Wednesday, May 12 2004

Building a new country house has never been something to undertake lightly but as a recent appeal case in the High Court has shown, meeting the requirements of PPG7 seems to be increasingly difficult.

The wording of the clause which is crucial to the ability to build new country houses is: ‘An isolated new house in the countryside may also exceptionally be justified if it is clearly of the highest quality, is truly outstanding in terms of its architecture and landscape design, and would significantly enhance its immediate setting and wider surroundings.’

The appeal case was for a house near Shrewsbury, and the architects who worked on the plans were very careful to try and make sure that the new house would fit in with its surroundings rather than dominate them.

Susan Cresswell from architects Batterton Tyack who worked on the project said: ‘When we saw the site we were faced with two possibilities. One was to build an imposing, rather more formal house overlooking the land, and the other was an Arts and Crafts-style property which was more a part of the landscape.’

They went with the latter, and Batterton Tyack produced plans for a modest house built in the Romantic vernacular.

Amidst rumours about locals opposing the project and disseminating material which was unfriendly to the would-be owners, planning permission was refused by the committee of the local authority. The case was subsequently taken to the High Court on appeal, where the judge found there was no case to answer.

Meeting the criteria

Speaking to a property lawyer who works on many of these cases, it becomes clearer why such applications are so often refused.

‘What people do not realise is that you need to meet both of the criteria it mentions: it must both enhance the landscape, and be of utterly outstanding architectural merit,’ says Jan Bessell from Dickinson Dees.

She thinks a lot of the problem is a proliferation of people trying to build mock Georgian houses, which will never be passed because the proposed architecture is in no way outstanding, and more unusual proposals, although controversial, stand more chance of getting built.

‘If you look at something like the starfish house, which is one of the few to get permission, it will always provoke a reaction in people, be it good or bad, and in ten years time it will still look like something which is really unique,’ says Ms Bessell.

So you need a proposal for a building which will contribute something to British architecture, something which will endure.

Another is with people building a house which suits the landscape. This is not the way which things used to happen: 200 years ago the landscape would be manipulated so as best to show off the house, rather than the other way around. Ms Bessell suspects that to focus on the house first, then look at the grounds may be a way of convincing planners that you envisage something of merit.

Also, many applications are being turned down because of local feeling, prejudice, or lack of resources. Local authorities are democratically elected to represent their communities and it is them who ultimately decide whether a new build can go ahead or not.

However, many of the Authorities are stretched for time and money and may not even have a dedicated planning inspector who can make an informed design quality assessment, and no independent body to refer to for guidance which only serves to make an outcome more unpredictable.

Prescott’s decision

Looking ahead to the summer and beyond John Prescott is due to finalise, possibly as early as July, new planning legislation which will overrule PPG7 and introduce PPS7.

The difference is that PPS7 will be policy, wheras PPG7 was policy guidance and therefore more susceptible to interpretation. Regardless, whatever PPS7 says is not to be argued with.

Nobody knows what will be in the final draft and whether the ‘country house clause’ will remain. Many think its elitist nature invokes the wrath of the bullish Mr Prescott, which bodes badly for those who are hoping to gain permission through the current rules.

Another possibility is that a new clause will replace the old which stipulates any new build country house will only be permitted if it is stunning, enhances its environment, and it will help to aid rural regeneration through job creation, or local community involvement.

Planning Minister Keith Hill last week heard the views of ex-Heritage Minister Alan Howarth and John Gummer, both passionate pro-PPG7 campaigners.

Sources reported the meeting as having gone ‘extremely well’, but specifically for whom we do not know.

The only thing which is certain at this point is that those with a plot of land who are keen to build their own house should get a move on, and make sure it stands out from the crowd, rather than blending too apologetically into the landscape.

Ms Bessell’s assessment of the High Court ruling is that although still officially allowed, the bar is continually rising for those who wish to use PPG7, and if you undertake to gain planning permission, you should do so fully realising what it will entail. The fact is it is harder than ever to get a new build country house off the ground.

The original country house tradition is one of taking pride in quality of architecture and workmanship to create a house of outstanding merit, and this is the tradition which should surely continue, but whether it will remains to be seen.