Is it time planning laws changed?

Laura White
Laura White
© Chris Saville

For the past three years Rachel Sykes has lived on her smallholding at Cuddyford Meadow near Ashburton. She has four acres and grows fresh vegetables, salad and flowers which she sells at her gate and to local shops and restaurants.

For Rachel and her two children, Nell and Zac, this is more than just a job – it’s their way of life. But that life could soon be ended if Rachel’s application for permanent planning permission to live on her land is refused.

“We were originally denied temporary permission back in 2017,” said Rachel, “but won the appeal fairly easily. This is my job, it’s a full-time job and we had to prove within our business plan that there was a need for us to live onsite.
We did that, and our temporary permission was granted.”

That permission expired last autumn, and Rachel then applied for permanent permission. She lives with the children in a timber clad structure which was created from local and sustainable materials, and she ensured that it met with the rules under the Caravan Act which state that the structure must be transportable by road and not permanently fixed to the ground.

An independent Agricultural Consultant was instructed to produce a professional report in order to properly assess the need for Rachel to live permanently on site, and sadly for Rachel, he stated: ‘At this present moment in time, it would be my opinion that an essential need for a worker to be readily available at most times does not exist. The actual functionality of the enterprise does not appear to require any input much beyond a normal working day albeit at peak growing times of the year (summer), long working days may well be required.’

“It’s just unfeasible to run the business from somewhere else,” Rachel insisted. “I need to be here – I work early mornings and late at night, and I have two children. It’s not possible for me to drag them up here to sit about while I work. I need to be here for emergencies.

“It’s a constant fear that the pigs might escape and they would destroy everything within an hour. The hens are constantly getting out; when we had that bad snow a few years ago, we weren’t on-site then but the snow collapsed the polytunnel and I couldn’t get here to remove it before the weight got too much.

‘If we can’t live on site, it would make this life impossible. It’s not just the logistics, it’s having to spend money on rent or a mortgage that would make the business completely unfeasible. We couldn’t afford to do it, let alone taking into consideration the cost of travel to and from the site multiple times a day.”

Rachel’s story is an age-old one of those who try to make a life and a living a little differently, fighting the system which will always want to keep people all the same. The Moorlander readers may remember the Steward Wood community who lived and worked just outside Moretonhampstead. After living together there for a number of years and finally attempting to gain permanent permission, the fight just proved too much and after being denied permission, the residents all went their separate ways.

The Planning Officer’s report for Rachel’s case states: ‘This application must assess the current holding and activities on the site, and therefore cannot be guided by previous decisions but instead must look at the business afresh. The temporary permission granted in 2017 required evidence of a functional need for the accommodation on site and a firm intention to proceed. However the permanent retention of a rural workers dwelling must be judged against different and more stringent policy criteria … since such a permission will allow the residential occupation of the site in perpetuity.’

In a time of climate emergency, surely the Government and the National Park should be championing individuals like Rachel who positively contribute to their community, their environment and local food production. The food miles of Rachel’s vegetables and flowers is as minimal as you can get, and she supports the mental wellbeing of volunteers who come and help on her land.

“I understand the National Park is just following policy, but the vision of planning as a whole needs to change,” says Rachel. “Small farms are the way forward, for food resilience and biodiversity. Nothing we’re doing here is permanent; the house, the tunnels – it could all be gone in a few weeks. The planners have said that our house wasn’t built with the right materials and is not in keeping with the area, but my neighbour has a timber clad extension on their house which looks just like my house! The visitor centre at Haytor looks just like my house!”

The statement in the document of refusal states: ‘The proposal is in an area where the Authority would only permit a new dwelling in exceptional circumstances. Having considered an assessment of the holding, the Authority is not satisfied that there is an existing functional need for a worker to be readily available on site at most times to meet the proven needs of an established and profitable rural based business. Furthermore, the adjacent Local Centre of Ashburton provides suitable permanent accommodation in the locality that would serve the existing needs of the applicant.

‘The proposed accommodation, by reason of its design, detailing and materials, fails to demonstrate a high quality locally distinctive design that would conserve or enhance the character and appearance of this part of the Dartmoor National Park.’

When asked what outcome Rachel expected, she replied: “I really don’t know what to expect. The temporary permission was granted on the business plan proving the need to be on site. Although the pandemic has delayed things and we haven’t quite got to the end of the three-year plan, we’re well on the way. I’ll have to find out what the next step is, if permission is denied. I might be able to apply for another temporary stay but that is all the time delaying things; more worry, more money. It stops investment and getting other equipment on site to make the business more efficient because you’re all the time thinking ‘well, this might be for nothing, I might not be here next year’.”

As was the case with Steward Wood, it would appear that the Park’s worry is that ‘it would set a precedent’. But would that precedent be such a bad thing? A recent study stated that there are an estimated 4,554 allotments across the nation, with a potential 44,401,500 square metres of allotment space, enough to build 604,513 new homes. Is that the way this country wants to play in the fight against climate change? The worry about food security? Carbon capture? To take away land that allows people to feed themselves and their families and at the same time have a healthy, active hobby that keeps the body and the mind fit, is sheer madness. Especially if they want to use that land to build yet more houses whilst at the same time denying those who already have a perfectly suitable, sustainably built house on land
that they own.

As Rachel says, it is time that the rules for granting planning permission changed. To achieve the newly identified goals we need a more sustainable view with decisions being made by local officers with their focus securely on supporting people to live more respectfully on the land, assisting us in being mindful of reducing personal carbon emissions in line with Government targets, and allowing those who can become more self-sufficient, to do so.

Local Life