The planning policy exemption which allowed for the building of new country houses on green field sites so long as the quality of architecture and landscape design are ‘truly outstanding’ is set to be removed this winter, bringing a halt to the renaissance of English country houses. In the draft proposals for the new rural planning document, published last week, the Government states that ‘the policy exception which specifically favours the construction of large houses in the open countryside has not been included’.
Introduced in 1997 by the Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal, John Gummer, the policy opened up opportunities for ambitious rural developers to build mansions of distinction provided they were ‘of the highest quality, outstanding in terms of its architecture and landscape design, and would significantly enhance its immediate setting and wider surroundings’. However, the exemption, which some have regarded as a ‘loophole’, has proved controversial among conservationists in Britain who have spent the last six years campaigning for its removal.
The Government’s new rural planning document aims to help raise the quality of rural life and promote more sustainable patterns of development. According to the planning minister Keith Hill, the so-called ‘Gummer’s Law’ is ‘inconsistent’ with the desire to protect the countryside.
According to Mr Hill: ‘As most people in the countryside will tell you, what they need more of is mixed communities with homes for young people, key workers and the elderly, many of whom are being priced out of the communities they grew up in.’
One of the strongest groups to lobby against the clause has been the Campaign to Protect Rural England: although their overall response to the consultation document is cautious, they have welcomed the removal of the country house clause. ‘CPRE is pleased that the Government has stuck by its commitment to remove the current special exceptions for so called new country houses. This has proved damaging, costly and unjustified.’ Rural Policy Officer Sophie Spencer added: ‘It’s vital that the Government gets this key policy statement right to protect the countryside from unnecessary and inappropriate development.’
The Government has moved to delete this clause in the face of a report published this summer ,which claimed that new country houses bring considerable economic and environmental benefits to the countryside. The clause also has the backing of the RIBA who recently co-hosted a debate on the new ideas for PPG7, during which George Ferguson, president of RIBA stated: ‘I’m an urbanite who likes to escape to the countryside. But the countryside needs to be looked after by those who have means and, generally speaking, beautiful things which are built in the countryside are built by the wealthy.’
Robert Adam from Robert Adam Architects who have designed some of the greatest new country houses, told Countrylife.co.uk: ‘It is interesting that in the consultations on PPG7 the CPRE were consulted but the RIBA were not. This is a left-wing knee jerk reaction to the idea that rich people are being allowed to do something not available to poor people and a conservationist knee jerk reaction that anything new and built in the countryside is by definition bad.
‘They all forget that the countryside in Britain is all man made and most of its beauty is due to the investment of money from Britain’s trading past by people who built large houses in the country and lived in them, he added.
What [these changes] do not recognise is the environmental and economic benefits of large new houses: large new areas of countryside taken out of the subsidy regime in perpetuity, extensive tree planting and revival of grazing, improved environment for wildlife, increased employment and housing for semi-skilled and unskilled local labour. ‘
If these proposals are implemented, we can ony hope that innovation and determination will find a way through which will keep the countryside and teh cuontry house tradition alive, however with the current Government seemingly unwilling to understand how this must be done and to push through its plans as they are, a faint hope it must remain for now.