Friday Grove appeal decision
Inquiry held on 5, 6 and 25 June 2007
Site visit made on 25 June 2007
by John Papworth DipArch(cios) RIBA an Inspector appointed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
Appeal Ref: APP/C1950/A/06/2027555
Land at Friday Grove Farm, North of Hawkshead Road, Brookmans Park, North Mymms, Hatfield AL9 7TF
Summary of Decision: The appeal is dismissed.
1. It is agreed between the parties that the proposal for a dwelling in the Green Belt is inappropriate development as defined in Planning Policy Guidance Note 2 "Green Belts" (PPG2). Inappropriate development may however be permitted in very special circumstances, and this is referred to in the Central Government guidance at paragraph 3.2. Very special circumstances to justify inappropriate development will not exist unless the harm by reason of inappropriateness, and any other harm, is clearly outweighed by other considerations. In addition, I heard evidence on the applicability to this proposal of the exception in paragraph 11 of Planning Policy Statement 7 "Sustainable Development in Rural Areas" (PPS7) that provides, very occasionally, for an isolated new house in the countryside. I am satisfied that the appellant has had opportunity to address this as a matter before me.
2. I consider therefore that the main issues in this appeal are;
3. The Development Plan includes the Hertfordshire Structure Plan 1991 - 2011 and the Welwyn Hatfield District Plan 2005. Structure Plan Policy 1 concerns sustainable development including conserving the County's important environmental assets and safeguarding the Green Belt. Policy 5 is specific to the Green Belt and sets out a presumption against inappropriate development with reference to PPG2. Local Plan Policy R3 expects development to include measures to maximise energy conservation and Policy R4 states that planning permission will be granted for proposals for the development of renewable energy sources subject to criteria. Waste management is the subject of Policy R6. Policies R9 and RIO detail requirement on water supply and conservation, and Policy R29 concerns archaeology. The quality of design is a requirement of Policy Dl, character and context of Policy D2 and Design Statement of Policy Dll. Policy RA1 lists other policies and the possibility of very special circumstances as exceptions within the Green Belt, where permission will only be given for stated purposes. The Council has also published Supplementary Planning Guidance, adopted in February 2005.
4. PPG2 states at Paragraph 1.4 that the fundamental aim of Green Belt policy is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open; the most important attribute of Green Belts is their openness. PPS7 states at paragraph 11 that very occasionally the exceptional quality and innovative nature of the design of a proposed isolated new house may provide special justification for granting planning permission. Such a design should be truly outstanding and ground-breaking, for example, in its use of materials, methods of construction or its contribution to protecting and enhancing the environment, so helping to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas. The value of such a building will be found in its reflection of the highest standards in contemporary architecture, the significant enhancement of its immediate setting and its sensitivity to the defining characteristics of the local area.
5. The site is an open area of land divided by vegetation but with views in places across the site from the road which skirts the south side, and from other, albeit limited, vantage points. I acknowledge that the intention is to augment the screening so that the area to be developed is hardly evident in the wider landscape. In terms of openness however, I am not persuaded that the lack of public views through the site is the deciding factor. Within the site there would be the erection of the building rising to a maximum height of approximately half that of the significant oak tree in the centre of the area. It appears to me that although this is described as an earth-sheltered form of construction, that sheltering is not to be accomplished so much by digging-in, but largely by building on top of the general site levels, and then earthing-up against the structure. I accept that the finished effect would be of an earth surface, but there would be man-made finishes as well as what I view as an unnatural shape of earth mounding and this would, in my judgement, erode the openness of the site and stop the through views presently a feature within the site. Whilst set within the substantially screened area, I consider this an erosion of openness compared with the existing open agricultural use. In addition to the harm through inappropriateness, I conclude that the proposals would harm the openness of the area, an attribute described in PPG2 as being the most important.
Character and Appearance
6. The site is presently a number of connected fields; at the time of my inspection part was awaiting cutting for hay, with other parts being grazed by sheep. I consider the site a pleasant agricultural landscape of gently undulating land sloping generally down to the valley with attractive hedgerows and tree belts, and to be part of a valuable buffer among areas of buildings and horse grazing.
7. I shall consider further aspects of the design in the next main issue, but I acknowledge the intention to design something truly outstanding, groundbreaking and innovative in the terms sought in PPS7. However, whilst I find the dwelling exciting and attractive in isolation in its varied planes and use of materials, and agree that the degree to which built form may be visible is limited by both the earthing-up and the screening of the site, I am of the view that the formation of the access drive and the visible parts of the copper roof would appear as indications of a building, and I am not certain that there would be a lack of domestic items in view, in addition to which there would be the movement, activity and comings and goings associated with a large dwelling from both residents and guests.
8. I consider that the building would not blend in with its wider surroundings but rather would stand out as something alien and discordant in the landscape. In sum, these changes to the land would, I find, alter open fields into a developed area, albeit with some agricultural uses around it, harming the rural character of the area and adversely affecting what I consider a fragile countryside character and appearance in this part of the district. I acknowledge that there are some benefits and enhancements, and I shall balance these when I consider very special circumstances and in my overall conclusions. I conclude in this main issue that the development proposed would have a detrimental effect on the character and appearance of the Friday Grove Farm area of North Mymms contrary to the aims of Structure Plan Policy 1, Local Plan Policy D2 and advice in PPS7 on protecting the countryside for its own sake.
Isolated New House
9. There were submissions on the meaning of'isolated' in this context. I note the paragraphs preceding the reference in paragraph 10 of PPS7 which concern development within villages, or adjoining villages, then refer to development away from established settlements or areas allocated for housing. I do not read these references as precluding from the term 'isolated' a site such as this with some built form and transport nearby.
10. I understand and concur with the point made by the appellant regarding the more gradual, iterative, nature of much of architectural design and technological advance in building. Even truly innovative buildings often draw on the experience, both success and failure, of previous buildings. I attach weight to the wording that the building should reflect (rather than lead) the highest standards in contemporary architecture. Where there is innovation it may be in the use of a new material, method of construction or form, or alternatively, the use of an established version of these elements in aninnovative way and it is clear that the examples given in paragraph 11 are not exhaustive. However, I am concerned in the terms of the PPS7 exception that minor progressions along this iterative path would each claim some aspect of being ground-breaking, truly outstanding or innovative, and that, in my opinion, cannot be the aim of an exception of this type.
11. Turning to the various elements of the PPS advice, I find the visual design of the building exciting and dynamic and one that does reflect the highest standards in contemporary architecture through the more abstract, less formalised, use of angles and planes, and an organic link with the ground, appearing to grow out of it rather than sit on it. The spaces in and around the building would, I consider, be interesting, and would provide a link with the proposed landscaping. I have studied the results of the lengthy series of negotiations and discussions of the Architects Advisory Panel and concur that the building and its surrounding landscape has been the subject of careful advice leading to a fully integrated design.
12. I consider the design innovative, within the iterative nature of architectural design as previously stated, and the building and the landscape is clearly designed to be of exceptional quality. I consider further that the design is truly outstanding and ground breaking in sufficient areas, including some given as examples, to satisfy the thrust of this part of the guidance.
13. I do not however, as set out in my previous main issue, find the development to be a significant enhancement of its immediate setting. Whilst I see the present PPS7 as being less concerned with a traditional country house in a wide managed landscape, and more concerned with the immediate surroundings, I do not consider the existing area defective or degraded; it is, rather, an attractive rural agricultural scene. The development would alter this and add pleasing features such as the orchard, stock grazing, the improved ponds and other management interventions, but the height and engineered appearance of the earth mounding along with these other works would not, in my estimation, be a significant enhancement of an already attractive and appropriate rural area. As a result, I cannot conclude that the development is sensitive to the defining, rural, characteristics of the local area.
14. I am also not persuaded of the ability to raise standards generally in rural areas. It appears to me that some, if not all, of the innovation relies of control of a large area of land. This provides drainage, sufficient roof areas for the catchment of rainwater, sufficient footprint for the earth mounding and wall thicknesses to achieve the thermal resistance and mass, and control of overshadowing to harvest solar energy, all in addition to what is, in my view, a sizeable house with a significant use of land. I acknowledge that there is demand, even pressure, for similar development, in the rural areas, and that this may well be an exemplar for that type of development. I accept a pressing need for enhanced energy conservation and reduction in CO2 emissions, as Government policy, but I consider the scope for raising standards in the way illustrated here to be limited, whereas in residential buildings, the more pressing need will be to deliver lower energy uses and smaller carbon footprints in mass housing with lower budgets and less land available. I accept that this development proposes the husbanding of finite resources of energy, but this is, in my view, and as expressed by an interested party at the Inquiry, at the expense of a substantial area of another finite and valuable resource - open countryside.
15. I conclude therefore that whilst the design and technical aspects of the building could be regarded as being innovative, outstanding and ground-breaking, reflecting the highest standards in contemporary architecture, the proposals would cause harm to the physical and visual environment that would, in my judgement, outweigh the ability to enhance the environment in the wider sense of reducing energy and the emission of greenhouse gases, and that the ability to raise standards more generally is of limited value compared with the effect of the proposal. It is my view, on balance, therefore that the proposal does not reach the standard required to provide the special justification for an isolated new house in the countryside in line with advice in PPS7.
Very Special Circumstances
16. I have identified harm in the form of the inappropriate development and the erosion of openness, harm to the character and appearance of the area and in being contrary to policy on residential development in the countryside without justification. I shall now consider whether there are other considerations that clearly outweigh the harm so as to amount to the very special circumstances stated in PPG2. There may be some overlap with matters that I have considered in respect of the PPS7 justification, but I consider it right to address these matters here also. The appellant identifies six factors in support of the contention that very special circumstances exist and I shall deal with them in order, together with other matters described as being advantages to the Green Belt.
17. The exceptional nature of the proposal and compliance with the high standard set in paragraph 11 of PPS7. I have found generally in favour of the proposal's high standard and innovative nature, but against its effect on the character and appearance of the rural area and its ability to raise standards in that area. The design may, in isolation, be exceptional, but I do not agree that it should be considered an exception to countryside policies and this limits the weight I can attach in this instance.
18. Footpaths including access to the Green Belt I note that the site is bounded on the south side by a busy road with a poor pedestrian route requiring use of the carriageway or rough verge to make the link between existing footpaths, bus stops and other destinations. There is a path and other access along the north boundary associated with Gobions Wood but no satisfactory close link between that and another path heading south from Hawkshead Road. The addition of the paths proposed would, in my judgement, have significant benefits in linking existing paths, and providing opportunities for longer distance routes without recourse to roads. This may influence walkers' choice of routes and generate a greater use than is evident with the existing disjointed routes. Whilst the proposed east-west route remains close to the road, the north-south route would be a pleasant walk away from traffic and into parts of the Green Belt not presently accessible. I attach weight to this provision and to the furtherance of Green Belt objectives.
19. Conservation and landscape enhancement stem from management proposals and works to the landscape, and various aspects are acknowledged and welcomed by expert bodies. I concur with them on the conservation works, which would clearly aid biodiversity and link with the preservation of Gobions Wood. I am less persuaded of landscape benefits, and have concluded that the existing land is not degraded and hence not in pressing need of improvement, and that the building and engineered form of the earth slopes would detract from the landscape. The introduction of rare breeds is, no doubt, beneficial to their survival and the care of land but this could occur on the land now. Overall, I find there to be harm caused which may well be mitigated by work, but I attach limited weight to the net result.
20. Sustainability exemplar I find that there is considerable merit in seeking to develop a carbon neutral building form. This development is not alone in seeking this aim and it is my opinion that the real challenge, and hence benefit, will be in accomplishing low, possibly zero, energy forms within higher densities and a mass market product. I acknowledge that the aims of this development are benefits, but limit the weight I attach to them due to the land-take and through being too removed from the scale and economics of general practice.
21. Educational resource It is a fact that the local university has expressed interest in the offer of access for a range of studies, and reference is made to the Government Energy Review, the Department for Education and Skills, and other funding and advisory bodies. I accept that the number of sites for study of this type of development is still limited, and in the absence of local alternatives, the offer may be of value. But, having in mind the area's location relative to London and possible alternative developments, together with the time constraint within the Section 106 undertaking, I do not attach substantial weight to this benefit.
22. Historical integrity This is a reference to the previous existence of a dwelling on the land and to the reinstatement of orchards, ponds and the like. The fact is that the house has gone, with no trace pointed out to me on site. Whether or not its survival would have had any impact on the setting of Green Belt boundaries is conjecture. A previous Ministerial planning decision for Witley Park in Surrey (Ref.APP/R3650/V/03/l 128039) was presented for my consideration. Whilst in that case the then First Secretary of State agreed that the proposal did pass the test in PPG7, he further agreed that the enhancement of the historic landscape and buildings was the major and decisive benefit. I have been told of no pressing need to reinstate the dwelling or its landscape for historical reasons and find the existing agricultural land pleasant and of value in its own right.
23. In conclusion, I find real and serious harm caused by the proposal and whilst accepting that measures would be put in place as mitigation and that there would be some degree of additional benefit accruing, these matters do not, in my judgement, amount to the very special circumstances sufficient to outweigh the harm.
24. The proposals would be innovative and exciting in architectural and landscape design, but in this location would cause harm to a rural character and appearance and for that reason would fail to reach the standard required in PPS7. The siting within the Green Belt sets additional requirements, but the height and disposition of the building and earth banks would erode openness. No very special circumstances have been put forward sufficient to outweigh the harm identified and hence the proposal would be contrary to Development Plan policies and Central Government guidance previously detailed.
25. For the reasons given above and having regard to all other matters raised, I conclude that the appeal should be dismissed.
26. I dismiss the appeal.
S J Papworth
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14 July 2007
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