Moira Fraser

As a town and country planning law practitioner of 20-odd years, I've begun to realise that much of my legal experience is “town” and not “country”-based. This has been highlighted by viewing a nightly news diet of burning pyres in Cumbria and mouldering carcasses in Devon. Things that go on in the country rarely seemed to affect the national urban consciousness, but now the general election has been postponed because of Foot-and-Mouth disease and farmers are collapsing under the cumulative effect of this, BSE and the aggressive pricing policies of the supermarket chains. We have all been forced to focus on country matters, but is enough being done to help farmers and the countryside? Are we in danger of subsidising preservation instead of accommodating sustainable economic solutions?

The Use Classes Order 1987 specifies the way in which the use of property can be changed without obtaining planning permission, within categories such as shops and industry. Agriculture is not currently included in this order. If rural communities are to become economically self-sufficient, and not reliant on urban-funded subsidies from the Government, they need to be permitted by law to use their agricultural land to make money from appropriate activities other than farming, just like their urban neighbours.

The Government has issued a rural white paper entitled “A Fair Deal for Rural England”, which sets out 10 ways in which it hopes to make a difference to the rural financing challenge. Unfortunately, the paper fails to offer farmers the opportunity to effectively capitalise on their land, and relies almost solely on subsidies.

Although John Prescott, in his introduction to the white paper, explicitly denies that the Government vision of the countryside is “an outdated, picture-postcard version”, I could not but think that this is exactly the vision portrayed in the white paper – a frail, naive countryside needing protection from its more robust, strong urban brother. It brings to mind emergency aid for disasters in Third World countries. This has its place, but experience has surely shown that the best way to help people help themselves is to promote a structure for sustainable economic development, which means they can make their own wealth and evolve from surviving communities to thriving communities.

Town and country planning must have a part to play in helping the countryside to survive the current crises and evolve into an independent economic area without the need for the Band Aid approach trumpeted in the white paper. The law is clearly outdated and neglects to address the financial needs of rural England. Arguably, a new “use class” devoted to agricultural land and agribusiness needs to be introduced to the Use Classes Order, allowing a more diversified use of agricultural land by farmers – offices, studios, or workshops in redundant agricultural buildings, for example.

Put very simply, if some development can take place in the countryside in limited areas, it will attract inward investment, which will in turn promote sustainable economic vitality. It must be better if the countryside can help itself financially rather than being subsidised by urban areas, fuelling the country-town divide. Of course, unrestrained development in the countryside would be a disaster, not just for country dwellers, but for the whole country and our national heritage.

The Foot-and-Mouth crisis has made the “town” think “country”, achieving in a few harrowing weeks what the rural white paper seems to have failed to realise. It would seem that the best way for the countryside to sustain itself in the long term is to modernise town and country planning laws and introduce agricultural land in the Use Classes Order, foregoing the need for urban-funded subsidies and narrowing the gap between the town and the country.

Moira Fraser is a partner and head of planning at Fladgate Fielder