Threat to new country houses

Leading architects are warning of the threat to a small but significant clause in planning law that sanctions the ‘very occasional’ building of an isolated house of ‘ground-breaking’ design. Paragraph 11 of Planning Policy Statement 7 (PPS7, originally PPG7), which covers sustainable development in rural areas) has led to noteworthy new country houses in the Classical idiom, such as Ashley House, Stockbridge, designed by Robert Adam; Wootton Hall, Staffordshire (Digby Harris of Francis Johnson & Partners); and Great Canfield, Essex (Quinlan Terry). Architects and landowners fear the clause will be a casualty of the Localism Bill, as the Coalition compresses planning policy from thousands of pages to a maximum of 60 in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The ‘Gummer clause’ was created in 1997 by the then Environment Minister John Gummer (now Lord Deben), and it survived attempts by John Prescott and Labour to drop it when planning policy was rewritten in 2004.

‘The country-house tradition is one of the great glories of England, and I was determined it should continue,’ says Lord Deben. ‘We even convinced the Labour Government to repackage the same clause, so it would be a tragedy if the Coalition, with the most civilised Cabinet for decades, should dump it now.’

New Grafton Hall

Only a handful of the 20-25 houses permitted under PPS7 have actually come to fruition, and, as architect Hugh Petter, a director of Adam Architecture, points out, the well of country houses demolished after the Second World War is nowhere near replenished. He suggests that, in view of the localist flavour of new planning law, now is the time to make the tests for such houses more objective.

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‘The British countryside has always functioned with money brought from the city, but, currently, the cost of appeal if planning for one of these houses is turned down is huge-you need £100,000 in your pocket before you start,’ says Mr Petter. ‘We had a case where a house went to a vote three times; we only lost by one vote in the end, but the planning officer sided with that vote. If the tests were better defined, local people would have the comfort of knowing that only good things would get through.’

John Goodall, Architectural Editor of Country Life, adds: ‘This clause does no more than echo a principle accepted in urban planning. The intractable issue will always be who judges the merit of the design.’

The CLA’s planning expert Fenella Collins warns that the NPPF could end up being over-simplified into ‘a sort of over-arching motherhood and apple-pie document’, which won’t help local and parish councils make decisions. The CLA, which recommends the Gummer clause remains, says in its response to the NPPF consultation: ‘We accept the need to undertake this exercise, not least because some, but by no means all, national planning policy is out of date and illogical. However, reducing policy to a minimum would leave those writing local plans and neighbourhood plans in ignorance and waste resources…

If the Government wants to make localism work, it must do more than set out a few paragraphs of aspirational, theme-based policies.’