With months of staying home behind us and working from home now the norm, many of us are re-assessing where and how we want to live. For those of us who have been cooped up in a city pad with only a balcony and a shared garden the size of a postage stamp, the idea of open space has in the past been somewhat of a dream. What’s more, planning policy has made it an ambition of only those with the means to take a significant financial risk to argue their case on why they should be allowed to live in the open countryside.
It all started back in 1997 when the then Labour Government introduced the ‘Country House Clause’, known as ‘Gummer’s Law’. In its earliest form, the clause stated: “An isolated new house in the open 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 will significantly enhance its immediate setting and wider surroundings. This means that each generation would have the opportunity to add to the tradition of the Country House which had done so much to enhance the English countryside”.
Alongside the Planning Policy, a Planning Policy Guidance Document was prepared (known as PPG7), which outlined the relevant criteria to meet the Country House Clause. Successive Governments altered the guidance document until it was finally replaced by Paragraph 55 of The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).
More recently, with updates to the NPPF, the essence of the policy has remained, but the paragraph references have been updated. However, the latest version of the NPPF and Paragraph 80 does have some subtle amendments – which has the entirety of the architectural and planning world a little excited. The criteria have changed with the Government trying to increase and improve housing provision nationally. But what does this mean for the city-dweller dreamers, families wanting more space and those who have always dreamed of living in the countryside but don’t have a family farm to add to?
Paragraph 80 states: “Planning Policies and decisions should avoid the development of isolated homes in the countryside unless one or more of the following circumstances apply.
1. There is an essential need for a rural worker, including those taking majority control of a farm business, to live permanently at or near their place of work in the countryside.
2.The development would represent the optimal viable use of a heritage asset or would be appropriate enabling development to secure the future of heritage assets
3.The development would re-use redundant or disused buildings and enhance its immediate setting
4.The development would involve the sub-division of an existing residential building; or
5.The design is of exceptional quality, in that it:
• Is truly outstanding, reflecting the highest standards in architecture and would help to raise the standards of design more generally in rural areas; and
• Would significantly enhance its immediate setting, and be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area”.
Let’s break this down:
• Paragraph 80 (a) relates to people who are working in the countryside so they can live where they work. Examples of this would be farm owners or managers and people working within forestry or horticulture.
• Paragraph 80 (b) is in relation to the retention and maintenance of a heritage asset or listed building.
• Paragraph 80 (c) relates to the re-use of redundant buildings, which are likely to be former agricultural barns, stables etc. It is a policy that sits alongside the recently-introduced Class Q permitted development rights that allow for the conversion of agricultural barns into dwellings without the need for full planning permission.
• Paragraph 80 (d) relates to turning one large home into smaller homes or apartments, possibly a mansion or an old stately home.
• Paragraph 80 (e) is the paragraph that has us all a little excited. In the latest edition of the NPPF, the wording of this paragraph has been re-written to exclude the word “innovative” in an attempt to clarify the requirements for a new home in the countryside which are as follows:
The design is of exceptional quality
Meaning the design of your home will need to stand out from the crowd. However, it can be challenging to define what “exceptional quality” of design is, and the interpretation of this can be very subjective across various locations and different local authorities. What is clear is that both building design and landscape design need to work together to create an exceptional design. Any Paragraph 80 home needs to sit in harmony within the landscape and its immediate surroundings. One option for demonstrating exceptional design would be to use a design review panel – an independent advisory body made up of built environment professionals. A design review panel offers impartial advice and guidance on design issues and is an excellent way to demonstrate to planning officers the exceptional design of your Paragraph 80 home.
Be truly outstanding
Whilst the innovation aspect of Paragraph 80 (e) has now been removed, this does not mean you cannot use innovation as a way to be truly outstanding, and consideration should be given to sustainability methods, construction methods and the building’s response to climate change.
Reflecting the highest standards in architecture
Again, entirely subjective, but the essence of this is to ensure your home is genuinely bespoke and designed for the site and its local area.
Would help to raise standards of design more generally in local areas
The question here becomes how do we define the local area? Is it the nearest settlement, district or wider? In our experience, this is determined by the local authority, but a reasonable interpretation would be the district. If you want to build your home in the open countryside, it has to be better than anything else in the district and raise the bar. There is a very good reason why only a couple of hundred Paragraph 80 applications are made each year, and of those, around only 50% are approved.
Would significantly enhance its immediate setting
This means the design of your home must talk to the landscape in which it is set. It must be designed with consideration and compassion for what is around it. A great way of helping with this would be to enlist the skills of a landscape architect to evaluate what would work best for your site.
One thing to remember is that not all settings are of high quality, and the introduction of a new home may, in itself, significantly improve the immediate vicinity assuming that the house is designed to a high standard.
Be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area
The building should respond to the local area. Firstly, you will need to define what the characteristics are. This could be a specific style of architecture your design could nod to or locally-sourced materials. In all cases, you will need to be able to demonstrate this to the local authority.
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to ensure your home will be approved. Much of the above is very subjective and is dependent upon the opinion of the planning officers and local authority planning committee members.
Striking a balance between satisfying the requirements of the NPPF and creating the home you have dreamt of can be a very difficult task. You must engage the right consultants with the appropriate expertise to argue your case well and trust they will design a suitable space for you. There may have to be compromises along the way to ensure you stand the best chance of getting approval.
Taking on a Paragraph 80 House is still not for the faint of heart. However, the rewards are substantial. You can leave behind your cramped city pad or your conventional three-bed semi-detached in the suburbs and live the dream in your one-off dream house in the rolling hills of the countryside. The road to making it happen may just be as bumpy, long and windy as the single-track road to your new driveway with lots of applications going all the way to appeal.
The removal of the word “innovative” maybe one less hurdle to jump, but homes in the open countryside remain one of the biggest challenges architectural practices face.