Why we Need to Protect the Countryside for its own Sake #NPPF

Draft of a pamphlet

Is explicit reference to the need to protect the Countryside for its own sake necessary in national planning policy?  After all if the final NPPF, as expected includes some form of ‘brownfield first’ policy, and control development to what is needed (a 5 year target for housing) and in the locations chosen locally in a development plan it might be argued that it falls away logically.  To play devils advocate development in the countryside will be permitted when it is necessary and refused where there is a brownfield alternative.

Here I argue that it is both logically and practically necessary and without it the necessity of it would become apparent very quickly.


What are the origins of the policy?  Government statements about the need to protect the countryside date back a long way.  The first references being the earliest planning acts setting up zoning and preventing ‘ribbon development’ in the countryside.  But national policy was slow to develop as the national focus was rebuilding after the second world war.  County maps developed in the 1950s and 60s allowing many villages to expand.  The focus though in England was on the protection of  agricultural land, following the spectre of near starvation in the war, rather than protecting countryside for its own sake.  In Scotland however, wiith rather less good quality agricultural land, there was a clear policy on protection of the countryside (whilst allowing crofting in the Highlands and Islands) in a circular in 1960 (circular 40/1960).

National planning policy developed in its modern sense in its 1980s through a series of policy controversies very similar to those experienced today over the NPPF.  Those controversies relating to rural areas are set out in a chapter by Kevin Bishop – Countryside Conservation and the New Right in Allemendinger and Thomas (1998) Urban Planning and the New Right, Routledge, A key event was the setting up of ALURE (Alternative Land Use and the Rural Economy) in 1986, to look at the decline in agricultural land in the face of growing ‘food mountains’. Arguments in the Cabinet saw some ministers argue for a radical deregulation of rural land use controls with the aim of compensating land owners incomes as farming subsidies fell.  . A defining image of this era was a Spitting Image sketch of Nicholas Ridly driving a bulldozer through Trumpton.   In the end there was a compromise, and a 1987 Circular only applied strict protection to the very best agricultural land but ‘full regard’ was required to be paid to ‘other areas of good countryside’ apart from nationally protected areas (Green Belts, National Parks etc). But alongside this was a severe weakening of the status of development plans proposed in 1986, and introduced in 1988, which saw an explosion in appeals, particularly in rural areas.

This experiment ended with a U-turn under Chris Pattern in 1991 and the replacement of Thatcherite by Majorite policy under Patten and John Gummer saw the broad shape of countryside protection remain broadly stable for 20 years.  The presumption would be in favour of the development plan, sutainable development became the purpose of planning. the countryside would be protected but rural enterprise and farm diversification encouraged.  The 1995 Rural White Paper was particularly important with its aim of ‘conserving the character of the countryside for the benefit of present and future generations.’, it stated that ‘the appeal of the English Countryside is central to its economic prosperity.  It is therefore particularly important to ensure that the environment is not damaged by the process of economic development…New development in the countryside should contribute to a sense of local identity and regional diversity’.

The new settled policy policy took a structured form with the introduction of PPGs – Planning Policy Guidance in 1997, including PPG7 covering the countryside.  PPG7 in particular had a focus on policy covering the ‘whole countryside’ and first introduced, at the urging of the CPRE the phrase about ‘protection of the countryside for its own sake’.

The Government’s policy is that the countryside should be safeguarded for its own sake and non-renewable and natural resources should be afforded protection. Since the Second World War conservation efforts have concentrated on designating and protecting those areas of countryside which are most important for landscape and wildlife. The priority now is to find new ways of enriching the quality of the whole countryside while accommodating appropriate development, in order to complement the protection which designations offer.

The current (for this week) PPS7 from 2004 contains instead the somewhat grandiloquent ‘continued protection of the open countryside for the benefit of all’ and the more down to earth ‘Planning authorities should continue to ensure that the quality and character of the wider countryside is protected and, where possible, enhanced. (para 15).  Its structure was logically messy though, with different terminology for the national objective and specific policy in nationally designed and ‘wider’ countryside areas.

The policy seemed settled and planning debates quickly shifted to those surrounding the volume and location of major housebuilding.  Under Brown a major emphasis on increasing housebuilding depended on targets being incorporated into development plan, a short lived attempt in 2009 to bypass local plans though a national; policy on Ecotowns was swiftly dropped.  Note however that the policy on protection of the countryside could only justify itself  as not preventing the development the country needed as so far as development plans allocated land to meet that need.  If they stalled then the policy became vulnerable to attack.  And it did stall.  The intervention to raise housing numbers in the light of the 2006 based Household Projections, at the height of the property boom, led to attempts to increase housing in several regions at a late stage in the preparation of several regional strategies.  There was a backlash which hardened to outright oppostion to the concept of regional planning, with Shadow Secretary of State Caroline Spelman writing to conservative authorities in 2009  to

 “put the brakes on elements of regional spatial strategies that [local authorities] find undesirable…We would advise councils not to rush ahead with implementing the controversial elements of regional spatial strategies” .

The unintended consequence of this was to make plans in areas of highest development pressure out of date and to open up a front for those opposed to planning controls in the countryside that it was the policy for the protection of the countryside that was at fault.  This opening was taken up by the neo-conservative think tank ‘Policy Exchange’ in a series of pamphlets.  Since 2006 it has argued for the abolition of the plan led system. the reintroduction of the pre-2001 presumption in favour of development and the removal of controls of building on the open countryside, even in the Green Belt. There reports were dismissed as ‘half baked’ by many commentators, myself included, especially after Tim Leunig’s call in a 2008 Policy Exchange Pamphlet in 2008 for abatement of northern cities and building an extra 450,000 homes around London – was called ‘insane‘ by David Cameron.  However the ideas of the Policy Exchange formed the template for ideas then incorporated in the ‘Open Source Planning’ opposition ‘Green paper’ in 2010, setting out the basis for the National Planning Policy Framework and most of the policies in it. This document is important as it is referred to in the conservative 2010 manifesto and the coalition agreement.  But it is important to stress what is not in it.  It did not suggest removing the ‘brownfield first’ policy, it did not suggest  removal of the policy for the protection of the wider open countryside, and it was implied that the policy would enable local communities to reduce development.  However the rue intent of the policy was set out by the papers author John Howells MP (now a DCLG PPS) said in an infamous speech in February 2011 developers could then ‘build what they like, where they like and when they like” .

What are the arguments for a policy protecting the countryside for its own sake?

1) Without it ‘Brownfield First’ Policy doesnt make much sense

Planning policy is about push and pull factors. Pull factors are those which encourage development, and push those where development may cause some harm.  The pull factors for ‘brownfield first’ might include making use of derelict and redeveloped land, and existing infrastructure, as well as minimising travel to work etc.  But it is unclear what the governments thinks these area as it has only referred to factors about the intrinsic qualities of land in debates about the NPPF, never about the intrinsic qualities of settlements and landscapes.  Without a policy on the ‘push’ factors the brownfield first policy makes little sense, it could equally encourage development of remote and scattered brownfield sites in the countryside – such as the numerous former wartime aerodromes – most of which are unsuitable for housing development and many of which are correctly perceived by local as being entirely or almost entirely  ‘open’ in their contribution to the character of the countryside.

2) Without it any policy on Prematurity will not make much sense

If a local planning authority is at an advanced stage in preparing a plan and a developer submits an application on a major alternative site that has been rejected then current planning policy allows you to refuse it on grounds of prematurity as the argument is the merits of comparative sites should be considered at the plan examination.  This is important as the suboptimal site approval may actively harm the chances of a mcuh better site coming forward, because then the 5 year housing supply target might be met and because it would reduce the sales rate on the alternative site if it did go ahead, indeed it might not even hit ground as a result.  There is a problem though as current national policy does not allow prematurity to be used as the sole reason for refusal.  The draft NPPF proposed removing any grounds for refusal on grounds of prematurity, although a series of recent Secretary of State recovered appeals, at Sandbach, Grantham, St Austell and Winchester,  some of which resulted in successful legal challenge requiring redetermination, showed that ministers were keen to use grounds of prematurity to allow local communities some breathing space to finalise their own plans.  However in most cases the other reason for refusal needed apart from prematurity would be protection of the countryside for its own sake.  Indeed in some cases the SoS and inspector have been forced to scrape around to find that second reason.  In some cases the inspector has stated the site is not the best one in terms of accessibility to the town centre, or that the countryside around the edge of the town is particularly attractive – neither of which are factors which the NPPF takes into account and which would normally be overridden by the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ in the NPPF, despite being highly unsustainable in most peopl’es book.  If the Secretary of State or an inspector wants to refuse a scheme because they think it will harm the open countryside the NPPF should not act as a straightjacket to prevent them.  Of course a local plan is free to set this out but for the 68% of England without adopted plans  (CPRE Protecting the Wider Countryside – 2012)

3) Without it policies for Affordable Rural Housing wont make much sense

Current policy in PPS7 allows a key exception for policies which protect the open countryside, for affordable housing meeting local needs at the edge of villages.  The NPPF abolishes this policy but does allow some greater local flexibility in development plans, such as the policies some districts are introducing to allow for an element of market housing or business space to subsidise the build costs of the affordable housing.  This is sensible but until new local plans are in place, and this will require even adopted plans to be revised, it will encourage landowners to withdraw such proposed ‘exceptions sites’ and submit them as proposals for market housing in the local plan.  In the transition period therefore there does need to be a national ‘exceptions’ policy if it is to have any bite, even if it does allow some market housing on what otherwise are predominantly affordable schemes.  What then would the policy be an exception to?  Without a policy protecting the open countryside landowners will argue that the NPPF implies expansion of villages even before local plans are in place and hence we are likely to see a fall in affordable housing, developers being able to avoid policies on affordable housing by pepper potting small schemes, cherry picking high value, and unaffordable by the majority, large high value schemes of  1, 2 or 3 ‘executive homes’.

4) With it we show we manage the Countryside and Land Use Prudently

A failure to include a wider countryside protection policy sends a signal that we fail to prudently use land.  We are not a country of wide open spaces.  Though only around 9% urbanised this rate is very high internationally, exceeded only by micro-nations and countries such as the Netherlands.  Even a small numerical increase in development in the countryside can have a huge impact on its landscape character and visual tranquillity.  Proof of this is development in the last 20 years in Ireland, both north and south, where unlike England isolated development in the countryside is permitted.  Though arguably all of this was needed its location and the casual nature whereby consents where given has had a calamitous and disproportionate impact on the rural character of many areas. A general policy of prudency forces us to ask the question – do we need to release this land, do we need to  release so much, is their a more sustainable location for it.  Indeed any policy framework that does not allow for or prompt such questions cannot be called sustainable as it it is not allowing for prudent use of a natural and non-renewable resource resource – land.  This is why planning needs to embrace Smart Growth – which we have strongly promoted at the Campaign against Sprawl and which we are pleased in now in the ‘red lines’ of the Wildlife and Countryside link on the NPPF and also embraced by the NT.  Smart growth is about making efficient use land, economic use of infrastructure, and minimising the length and number of car borne trips and increasing walkability.  Of course rural undeveloped land has multiple values to society, it has an ecological and economic value as the National Ecosystem assessment underlines, it has value for food security and as a visual amenity.  Of course this value will vary greatly from site to site and in many cases its value will be marginal and where there are no clear alternatives its use for ‘Smart Growth’ development will be sustainable.  But what a general approach of prudency does is allow us to reflect on the weighing of these alternatives and be sure the loss of countryside is justified.  The prudent use of land also applies to urban areas, a policy of using previously developed land (brownfield first) does not imply building on natural areas and sites for much needed open spaces in rural areas if they are the communities priorities.

6) As long as Local Plans Meet Local and Wider Need it wont push up House Prices

This is the crucial point.  The argument that we have not built enough homes is valid.  The argument that this is because we protect the countryside misses the point, the real point is that we have not always, certainly since the 1970s, built as many houses as a nation we need or built enough houses in the stead of the areas where development is highly restricted such as Green Belts.  In the past there were various policy measures to mop up this pressure, such as New Towns till the mid 70s, then growth areas, urban renaissance and lets not forget the much maligned Housing Renewal Areas which built over 15,000 units in Northern Towns (vastly more than this ‘failure’ of a policy has built than its successor).  Where now are the growth areas?  For a time the government seemed to have given up on local plans being in place and would simply remove the restrictions, the Treasury would reportedly still wish to pursue this.  This is why supporters of the protection of the countryside need to be vigilant that local plans don’t attempt to ‘fix’ estimates of local need or that joint initiatives to provide strategic locations for growth are pursued under the ‘duty to cooperate’.  Because if again there is a falling behind in meeting housing needs then the pressure to remove protections for the countryside will return.

7) There is no Electoral Mandate for it

As we said deletion of this policy is not in the manifesto or coalition agreement, there is no mandate before it. New National Planning Policy should come before the whole house as set out in ‘Open Source Planning’ .  Indeed it is rather inconceivable that any party wishing to remove the policy for the protection of the open countryside could succeed at any general election.  Many mps say this is the dominant issue in their postbags.

The case then for retaining this policy is overwhelming.  It is not incompatible with the growth agenda, indeed willy nilly development in the countryside will harm the number one comparative advantage of England in attracting investment and tourism, its quality of the countryside and heritage.  The policy must stay, indeed ministers at the DCLG have studiously avoided making any explanation or justification for its removal.

10 thoughts on “Why we Need to Protect the Countryside for its own Sake #NPPF

  1. Oh dear. The planning system should not be protecting anything for its own sake. Its a bit like saying we must protect the navy for its own sake. I presume there are lots of people with spaghetti on their hats who take that particular view but the harsh reality is is that you only keep hold of things that are useful. Economically socially and environmentally.

    So if we’re all delivering sustainable development now then surely the need to protect the countryside can be dealt with on a case by case basis – taking into account the actual value attributed to each bit.

    Don’t get me wrong. I love the countryside and some of my best friends own a kagool. I also love the navy. Some of my best friends……

  2. Beauty has its uses. As you allude to in your op – it can be important in defining a cultural aesthetic, can enhance economic performance (cf value of design) and attract inward investment.

    But that is not the same as saying we should adopt a blanket policy of protection of the countryside. No more than we should have a policy that says every building 100yrs old or more should be retained come what may.

    A saxon church has more value than my house I’m afraid. That’s just how it is. Why shouldn’t we regard the countryside in the same vein?

    Also – your position is drawn from a view that development = pollution and that everything man made is inherantly bad. Setting aside that most of the green bits of the countryside in this country is actually man made – this also forgets that it is precisely the buildings – the saxon churches, pubs with log fires and post offices with picket fences – that people buy into when they move to / visit the countryside.

    • I would certainly dispute teh assertion that an underlying concept is that development is pollution, otherwise why would I have argued that development needs must be met. That is putting words in my mouth. Similarly there is no assumption that all countryside is of equal value, again putting words in my mouth. Argue against my position not a straw man.

  3. It’s about time the constant reference to minimising car journeys and so forth was removed as a reason for preventing development in the countryside. This argument became redundant the day SIr Tim Berners-Lee invented the internet, yet it is constantly repeated in all policy discussions and by every planner straight out of college. Everyone in the countryside down to the frailest OAP knows that they are already penalised by paying vastly inflated fuel prices (compared to urban areas) and consequently keep journeys down to the minimum. Shopping is largely delivered to the door, vast numbers work full or part time from home, entertainment is downloaded, so no more driving to the cinema etc etc etc….

    The “Brownfield first” argument should remain for the countryside and a sequential test should be applied on a case by case basis, but it must be acknowledged that many rural areas have little or no Brownfield land available within or adjacent to villages. Conversely they do incorporate many small pockets of land that have zero agricultural or amenity value (same applies in Green belt and AONB villages). Currently these are “protected” for their own sake by battalions of local Nimbys / CPRE / National Trust types who fail to see the irony that development of these small pockets of land has been occurring for centuries and is the reason why most of the villages look as they do. The process of continuing this small scale, locally based, development must be re-started in order to maintain thriving healthy communities. I fear some of your proposals will play into the hands of these regressive types who would rather maintain the status quo – hideously expensive backwater retirement villages with no children, no services and no life.

    • Try moving your internet shopping deliveries without oil. If oil prices continue to rise then the historical case for suburbs and dispersed development collapses – it will be a lifestyle only the very richest can afford. We are already seeing this trend in the states. I acknowledge the need for more incremental development in villages.

      • I clearly have more faith in the ingenuity of the species than you – in 50 years time we will look back on our oil dependence in the same way we now look back at the steam train.

  4. Item 3 Affordable Housing.

    There’s no such thing – it’s either paid for by the developer (or landowner in terms of reduced land value) or it’s subsidised by you an me, the taxpayer. It can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that there is no more public money, leaving the developer to foot the bill going forward.

    The draft NPPF will get rid of the exception policy – good riddance; all it’s produced are cheaply built pockets of badly designed housing tacked onto existing settlements. These sore thumbs will be the rural ghettos of the future when the local authorities, creaking under the pressure of ever greater housing waiting lists, start shipping out the “problem families” from the towns.

    Affordable housing numbers will increase only when mixed and pepper-potted with market housing. To ensure that the affordable is seamlessly integrated into the whole, and everything is designed to the highest standard, using the best quality local materials, LPAs should resist the temptation to inflict affordable percentages that are too high. In rural locations, 25% should be the norm, otherwise build quality will suffer and the largely unfounded “problem family” fear will affect overall viability – both visually for the locals and in terms of saleablility for the market housing funding the whole enterprise.

    If councils are prepared to scale back their affordable aspirations (some are trying for 40% of floorspace on sites as small as 0.25 ha), then many more affordable houses will be built, they will be built to the same quality as the market housing and the future-ghetto tendancy will be reduced. In short…everybody happy!

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