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National parks fear planning rules would ruin precious landscape

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: January 28, 2014

Under the proposals any derelict agricultural buildings, like these on Dartmoor, could be developed into suburban-style housing without planning negotiation

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The Government will ignore fierce opposition to its proposals to cut red tape which could allow building and development work in some of the West Country's most precious countryside areas.

So say chiefs at Dartmoor and Exmoor national park authorities, who are outraged at the move.

The park authorities are particularly alarmed by the proposal that will allow – as of right – the conversion or replacement of "redundant" farm buildings in any location, with up to three dwellings.

Planning permission for the conversion of such buildings would be automatically granted without any need for an application – or the traditional discussion by a local authority. All developers would need to do is notify the planning authority of their intentions.

National park authorities across the country are up in arms over the proposals formulated by Planning Minister Nick Boles – which one West Country chief executive claimed "effectively takes us back to what could become an uncontrolled piecemeal development across all rural areas of England".

Dr Nigel Stone, chief executive of Exmoor National Park Authority, said: "In simple terms, where you currently see an agricultural building sited and built for agricultural purposes you are looking at a potential development site with very little by way of planning control.

"This would enable up to three new dwellings to go without the opportunity for local scrutiny or planning permission while anyone wanting a dormer window or a porch would still need to go through the full planning process."

Bill Hitchens, chairman of Dartmoor National Park Authority, said his members were unanimous in their opposition to the changes.

He said: "We believe it will lead to suburbanisation of Dartmoor, contrary to the Government's desire to promote localism, because it would negate parish and district councils, etc, commenting on planning.

"It would also harm our local economy and harm rural tourism – and may actually lead to a loss of hill farming.

"If the proposals are implemented, they will have a devastating impact on the national park."

A spokesman for England's national parks referred to the collective fears of rural planners around the country.

"Valleys full of fields dotted with stone field barns could be transformed into a semi-urban environment with roads and overhead power and phone lines," he said.

"You would have gardens, cars, washing lines, greenhouses and everything else that goes with a home springing up in some of the most stunning – and nationally protected – countryside in England.

"We understand the Government's aims to regenerate our rural communities by making the best use of redundant and under-used agricultural buildings. But the proposals would have the opposite effect."

The national parks said the move would not lead to the availability of more affordable homes.

A spokesman said: "This will just lead to more of the same: more second homes and more dream homes for retired people. Housing developed in this way would contribute little to meeting local community needs. Nor would it provide the support we desperately need to hold on to our local services, such as primary schools. On the contrary, it will simply increase the pressure on services already struggling to cope with a disproportionately elderly population. Barn conversions tend to be very expensive and are more likely to deliver 'second homes in the fields' than an affordable 'home on the farm'."

The Exmoor National Park Authority's official response to the Government's proposals begins: "Exmoor has many prominent agricultural barns within the landscape which, with their undeveloped and simple form, make a significant contribution to the character and appearance of the national park.

"The conversion or redevelopment of these barns to residential use, with the resulting changes in character and appearance, would harm the special qualities of the Exmoor."

The authority's response goes on: "Many of the national park's barns are without services – and often some miles from such services. The provision of electricity and telephony would involve overhead cabling and poles."

It said the authority had been working hard to persuade service companies to place cabling underground, adding: "This proposed permitted development rights change has the potential to undermine that work. Furthermore, many barns which may benefit from the proposal changes will not be able to connect to mains drainage or have access to a mains water supply."

As for local housing need, the authority's document counters: "We have, and are continuing to develop, policies that allow the re-use of rural buildings to local needs."

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