Wednesday, January 27, 2016

If agro-ecology is different how can planning promote it?

So to continue the argument that different agricultural regimes affect matters of acknowledged public interest in materially different ways, the procedures through which this could be brought within planning control are quite technical and complex - but that hasn't been a problem for this or previous governments. 

Objectives - For the purposes of this Blog it is assumed that a mechanism is being sought to define the type of agricultural unit that would be most likely to deliver the benefits described in the previous Blog; bio-diversity, employment, low carbon emissions, soil health, water retention/flood alleviation, public health, local food security, and sustainable development.

The first step is for a change to s55 of the Act to stipulate that a change to and from different agricultural (and forestry) uses will be regarded as development for which planning permission will be required, together with regulations to stipulate the criteria against which the character or nature of the holding/planning unit would be judged.

Option 1 -  This would be to create new Use Classes for different and distinct forms of agriculture.  The Use Classes would work to classify holdings of a particular character (and possibly size?) so that they would fall within say Use Class AG1,  and holdings displaying materially different characters could fall into AG2, AG3 etc - with any material changes between AG1, AG2 being regarded potentially as development requiring planning permission. Secondary legislation in the form of General Permitted Development Orders have been used to specify changes of use of a beneficial kind would not need express permission.

There are instances where area/floorspace is used as a distinguishing feature  and  different permitted development rights for agricultural buildings apply to holdings of > 0.4ha, >1ha and < or > 5ha.  This might suggest the use of an area of say 5ha as one of the criteria most likely to meet the Objectives? Other criteria might be more subtle and even harder to measure.  There are measures of bio-diversity or natural capital that could be used to distinguish between different holdings either at the point of a possible change of use or to set targets to be achieved over time.  I am not sure about how soils could be graded but as carbon is one of the criteria on which the claim of 'material differences' is being based, and relates in some way to soil fertility, this could be another measure to differentiate between land uses.  Employment potential is often assessed in making planning decisions and would be part of this new process.  The question of organic or chemical inputs could, in theory, be part of the process of distinguishing between uses but would require detailed accounting beyond the resources of most if not all planning departments.  There could be reliance on the accreditation available from the Soil Association but not all organic holdings register.  An alternative would be to pass the responsibility onto the farmer who intends to apply inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and insecticides to the land.

Regulations or possibly the NPPG could explain how these criteria could be assessed independently or cumulatively to allow an assessment of which Use Class should apply.  Where there are substantial areas of a holding that exhibit different characters the 'mix' of Use Classes creates a sui generis use.

Option 2 - As well as a change to s55 of the Act,  this option would also require regulations to stipulate the criteria against which the character or nature of the holding would be judged but that  agricultural (and forestry?) uses should be regarded as sui generis.  This would enable a judgement to be made as to  character of an existing farm and then whether  any changes amount to a material change of use.  Planning controls could then immediately prevent farming from becoming larger and more industrialised or carbon intensive. And if and when planning permission is being applied for, conditions could be applied to make the existing systems more sustainable  with reference to the agreed criteria.

Option 3 - This is a radical option that could be considered if the need to change agricultural practices became urgent.  There are already powers to discontinue existing lawful uses which (subject to compensation) can be used to require a material change of use including any of the criteria relating to sustainability.

Whatever change to the law/regulations is proposed there should be policies put in place to ensure that these new powers are used purposefully and not arbitrarily.  Policies at national (ie NPPF and NPPG) and possibly local level (local and neighbourhood plans) should help decide how applications should be determined and if approved what conditions it would be reasonably necessary to impose.

This proposal needs much more 'fleshing out'  but for the sceptics (all practicing planners) it should be noted that farmers can already be required to provide very detailed information about any farm gate operation to check whether it amounts to a change of use or is meeting planning conditions/obligations.  There are also some extraordinarily  difficult judgements to be made in respect of possible differences between catering uses (A3 food,A4 drink and A5 take -away) and between residential uses (C3 dwelling, C4 multiple occupation and sui generis HMO).  And that is without reference to the advertisement regulations.

All that is needed is the hard evidence that the use of our agricultural land and countryside should change and will need some form of (planning) regulation for it to do so.

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