Friday, January 8, 2016

A planner at the Oxford Real Farming Conference

I gather that 850 people attended this event over the two days that sought to define the essential elements of 'real farming' (organic, diverse, local, labour intensive etc) and then explore ways in which real could become normal.  Having written about planning for the three Rural Resettlement Handbooks starting in 1978, Practical Self-Sufficiency and Undercurrents I found it difficult to be uplifted by the enthusiasm and genuine hope the exuded from the speakers and delegates.  I found that the potential role of the planning system was being ignored and at every session I had to put in a shameless plug for this Blog where I suggested that some of the ways in which the planning system could work for them could be found.  I offered to hold a lunchtime workshop to which two people came.

In the previous Blog I have quoted an extremely useful paragraph from the NPPF on the single challenge of flooding and climate change (also quoted in the January edition of The Planner), and those looking to advance the cause of real farming might find the following of some use.

"161.Local planning authorities should use this evidence base to assess:
●the needs for land or floorspace for economic development, including
both the quantitative and qualitative needs for all foreseeable types of
economic activity over the plan period, including for retail and leisure
●the existing and future supply of land available for economic development
and its sufficiency and suitability to meet the identified needs. Reviews of
land available for economic development should be undertaken at the
same time as, or combined with, Strategic Housing Land Availability
Assessments and should include a reappraisal of the suitability of
previously allocated land;
●the role and function of town centres and the relationship between them,
including any trends in the performance of centres;
●the capacity of existing centres to accommodate new town centre
●locations of deprivation which may benefit from planned remedial action;
●the needs of the food production industry and any barriers to investment that
planning can resolve."

Every year the Conference attracts the most intelligent and articulate group of people with a very encouraging number of the younger generation.  The planning system has remained so off-putting that it has never really been put in the position of having to acknowledge that  'real farming' should be supported and privileged in the public interest.  It has been a minority pursuit where the occasional proposal made by a very determined individual has established a residential smallholding in the countryside on the basis of proving essential need.  Meanwhile use of the urban fringe remains in use by industrialised agriculture and horses.

I wonder what it would take for 850 intelligent and articulate people to actually produce the evidence referred to in para 161 to convince the 'planners'  that they should be removing the barriers to investment in  real farming?

Just as the planning system only acknowledged that there was a material difference between a house and a house that could be afforded by a person on local wages when this was accepted by a judge in 1992, the case could now be made that there is a difference between agricultural land that can be afforded by horse owners and speculators and that where the price bears a close relationship with the value of what could be produced.  This would justify the use of s106 to provide affordable land and associated affordable housing when developments around settlements are being considered (more detail in previous Blogs).

However, the planning system cannot yet differentiate between real and industrial farming.  If and when it  became clear that this would be reasonably necessary in the public interest then the law would need to change to make changes to and between agricultural uses 'material' for the purposes of planning control.  There are many considerations that are already taken into account in the determination of planning applications that have come to the fore since the drafting of the original legislation in 1947 which would justify a change in the law.  Different types of farming imply different treatment of soils, and different levels of biodiversity, employment, health, water run-off and sustainability.  When the real farming lobby creates the evidence base for being privileged in the exercise of current planning controls, this could also be used to lobby to change the law to enable this support to be widened.

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