A price to be paid for allowing Exmoor farming sector to grow
A controversial application for a new farm building has highlighted the dilemma facing planning officials on Exmoor, says local Conservative MP Ian Liddell-Grainge.
We have just had the result of a planning appeal on Exmoor: one which has overturned a decision by the national park authority.
An inspector has decided a young couple can put up an agricultural building for the purposes of housing livestock, even though it is going to impinge on one of the most iconic, not to say romantic views in the park – that of Dunkery Beacon which greets drivers as they emerge from the tree-lined ridge road across the Brendon Hills and get their first sight of the wild, open countryside that lies ahead to the west.
The application itself has been the centre of huge controversy locally. There have been claims and counter-claims of vested interests at work and undue pressure being applied, while parish councils riven by factionism. All, really, what might be expected when such a high-profile project is under discussion.
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I regret very much the arguments have descended to the bitter, personal level that has been reported to me. On the other hand the inspector has sided with the appellant and we must respect that decision.
What I do find interesting is what the inspector has to say about the application. She accepts the building is to go up in an area which is currently open and undeveloped, though does not believe its impact will be unacceptably adverse.
But, she goes on: "Nevertheless the national park is a living and working landscape which to a great extent has been shaped by agriculture. If the agricultural stewardship which has shaped the landscape is to continue to prosper I believe the needs of farming businesses must be recognised and accommodated where possible."
This, to my way of thinking, represents a significant watershed and not necessarily one which is going to change Exmoor for the worst. It should be read in conjunction with recent statements by planning minister Nick Boles, which point to a loosening of the current restrictive attitudes to development within national parks.
This should be particularly welcome on Exmoor. It is, after all, not only the smallest and quietest but least-visited (possibly because it is the least-promoted) of our national parks, so the tourist industry hardly delivers a regular pot of gold to the local community. At best it can be said to be rubbing along. That means the other major industry, farming, shoulders an enormous responsibility as the major driver of the local economy.
There, too, few fortunes are being made. Exmoor farmers will tell you they are doing all right – this year, at least. If one removed all the subsidies they would be ploughing deeper and deeper into the red every year. Few lowland farmers would regard the average farmer's drawing from an Exmoor enterprise to be "doing all right".
Sadly, restrictive planning policies, particularly on the provision of new homes, have turned Exmoor into a playground for two classes of people: the well-breeched landowner and the conservationists intent on, if not turning the clock back then at least preserving the entire area in aspic. That is not an option.
These two sections of the community are dominating the area more and more at the expense of working families who find themselves priced out of the housing market and forced to commute long distances to work. The critical mass of customers necessary to sustain local services is no longer available, which is why shops continue to close. There might now be a smart, modern supermarket in Wheddon Cross, but its impact is being felt on villages several miles away where running any kind of shop is already a labour of love and a quiet winter – not to mention the increasing use of home delivery services – could see a number of doors closing for good.
The national park authority has an appalling balancing act to perform in reconciling the demands of farmers and landowners with its statutory duty to protect and conserve the environment while defending itself against constant complaints that the ministerial appointees have no right to be at all involved in local decision-making.
More than 50 years of national park status have done little to enhance the economic wellbeing of the area and if it is now decided that Exmoor must be allowed to catch up with the rest of Devon and Somerset, all well and good.
If that means more farm buildings and more affordable homes, so be it. Their impact can be controlled by the application of a well-thought out design protocol which insists on the use of local materials and vernacular style.
When you think about it, many of the older farm buildings we now take for granted as we drive around Exmoor could probably have been classed as "unacceptably intrusive" when they were built years ago.
However, there were no restrictive planning frameworks to be negotiated, no panel of ministerially-appointed outsiders to persuade, no appeal process to resort to. They were built because they were needed, to ensure the moor remained farmed and attractive.
I am sure the building that is the subject of the latest controversy will soon settle into the landscape and most people will drive past it without even noticing it.
What they would notice, and regret, would be the dilapidated buildings, the broken-down fences, the overgrown hedges, the scrub-infested moorland and fields and the farmhouses turned into second homes that would be the inevitable alternative to allowing the Exmoor farming sector to modernise, develop and advance at the same pace as agriculture elsewhere in Britain.