Sunday, January 24, 2016

Should Planning control the use of ‘agricultural’ land?

This post seeks to respond to the question raised in the previous blog.

Since the drafting of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act the change of use of land to agriculture or forestry has not been defined as development requiring planning permission.   And the definition of agriculture (shared with the 1947 Agriculture Act) was and is,
“agriculture” includes horticulture, fruit growing, seed growing, dairy farming, the breeding and keeping of livestock (including any creature kept for the production of food, wool, skins or fur, or for the purpose of its use in the farming of land), the use of land as grazing land, meadow land, osier land, market gardens and nursery grounds, and the use of land for woodlands where that use is ancillary to the farming of land for other agricultural purposes, and “agricultural” shall be construed accordingly;

This is often also taken to mean such use of land for trade or business.

It is interesting to look at some of the interests of acknowledged importance that are protected and advanced when changes of use or the erection of buildings are within the control of the planning system;
-       productivity and soils (ie Best and Most Versatile land should, where possible, be protected from irreversible development) ,
-       biodiversity and soil conservation (ie Sites of Special Scientific Interest and other nature conservation designations are also normally protected from development),
-       surface water flooding (the ability of urban land to absorb surface water ie Sustainable urban drainage systems),
-       carbon emissions (an important part of the NPPF  presumption in favour of sustainable development and the contribution to achieving sustainable development (ss 19 & 39(2) of the 2004 Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act),
-       local employment (particularly in rural areas that does not imply large scale or long distance commuting).
-        Health and wellbeing (planning controls emerged from a concern about public health),
-       sustainable development (the economic, social and environmental impacts of development)
-       food security.

If it can be shown that different forms of agriculture can have materially different impacts in some or all of these respects then attention should be given to whether changes to and between agricultural practices should reasonably come within the control of the land use planning system.  It should be borne in mind that existing statutory planning controls have always been involved in distinguishing between uses with often slight and hard to discern differences eg what distinguishes a catering use that is predominantly serving drinks from that which is primarily serving food? When and how many tables and chairs turns a shop into a café? When does the deposit of material that is primarily for disposal (ie waste) become an operation that is primarily the  reuse of the same material (possibly for landscaping or soil conditioning)?   And this is without reference to the advertisement regulations.

So what might be the material differences between a stereotypical industrial arable farm and an organic smallholding:

Productivity  - the smallholding  is likely to be more productive if measured in terms of weight, nutrition, variety and per unit of energy. It will be producing carbohydrates in the form of roots (inc potatoes) and not cereals by relying on a range of organic inputs

Biodiversity – the smallholder would have smaller enclosures (more hedging) and with agroforestry and/or permaculture systems would have a much greater variety of birds, mammals and invertebrates. Using less insecticide and herbicide could be better for biodiversity and soils.

Drainage and flooding – very topical and the finger of blame being pointed to some farming practices where water runoff is encouraged or not delayed (with associated soil depletion) compared to farming practices that include swales and planting to increase porosity and water retention.

Carbon emissions -  there are varying estimates of the carbon emissions attributable to agriculture; <50% of global emissions by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 13% of UK emissions by the Committee on Climate Change.  The practices that are significant in this respect are land use change associated with forest clearing, cows and other ungulates, meat in general as an inefficient source of protein, nitrogen fertilizers and fossil fueled machinery.  Corn made into motor fuels could be added in.  The smallholding is likely to be less carbon reliant in all these respects as well as reducing some transport costs if aimed at local markets (the logistic operations of the large grocers are very efficient and could in theory run on electricity or bio-gas).

Local employment -  it is possible to make (scratch?) a living off a couple of acres of productive horticulture that probably includes elements of local distribution and farm gate sales/prices.  Large scale farming can be sub contracted to the exclusion of any local jobs and some very large and expensive kit can effectively extinguish local farming jobs.  There are estimates of the need for about 1 million new farmers to both replace those reaching retirement and to  make farming systems more labour intensive for other reasons.

Health and wellbeing – planning has always seen the improvement of living conditions (eg decent homes, lifetime homes and neighbourhoods) as important objectives. Public open spaces, recreation and play facilities are provided through the planning system.  The limitation placed on changes of use to public houses and suggestions that fast food take-aways should be limited near to schools illustrate these concerns.  The (organic) smallholding would make claims that its growing practices and its produce are healthier than the industrially produced alternatives.  Community Supported Agriculture or village farms could bring a social element into the equation.

Sustainable development – a very wide subject where smallholdings could claim that 80% of the global food supply comes from smallholders and that large scale agriculture with many manufactured inputs (machinery, genetic modification and chemicals) is still at an experimental stage.

Food security – since 1976 (Government Circular  - Food from our own resources) food security has not been a Government priority, and less so while there are many producers of cheap food wanting to sell into the UK.  However it was seen that security can operate on a another scale when the strike involving the refining of fuel for trucks threatened to empty the shelves in three days.  It has to be said that small scale growing, processing and distribution would have to expand substantially to affect the food security of a population of 60 million.

A strong case can be made that different agricultural practices have measurably different impacts in areas that are already accepted as being ‘public interests’ and being controlled by the planning system in different areas.  If the adverse impacts from agriculture are likely to stay roughly the same or actually deteriorate in the above respects without regulation then Government should be looking at ways to bring about improvements (including the land use planning system).   There are already chinks of light in the NPPF reference to garden cities as the recommended model for large scale housing, one that included areas for market gardening and linking town and country. The presumption in favour of sustainable development could also form the basis for arguing that food supply systems will become less sustainable without government controls.

All that is needed is well informed (and connected) lobby.

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