Will new government planning policy mean disaster for the Yorkshire Dales?

PUBLISHED: 00:00 29 November 2013

C52C5K Gunnerside, Swaledale, Yorkshire Dales National Park, UK

C52C5K Gunnerside, Swaledale, Yorkshire Dales National Park, UK

© Derek Croucher / Alamy

Conservationists are up in arms over government plans which threaten to irreparably damage the much-loved landscape of the Yorkshire Dales. Terry Fletcher reports.

For centuries the Yorkshire Dales developed a unique style of farming. Instead of putting up large barns close to farmhouses to shelter their livestock and fodder, cattlemen and shepherds created a network of field barns. Each tiny enclosure had its own small building where hay from the field in which it stood could be stored and fed easily to livestock housed there over winter. The animals’ manure would then be spread back over the same ground to grow more hay. It was a simple and efficient cycle evolved to cope with difficult terrain in pre-mechanised times when moving heavy loads over large distances, often on sleds, was time-consuming and laborious.

The result was the now familiar Dales landscape of pocket handkerchief-sized fields hemmed by drystone walls and dotted with sturdy stone barns admired by the millions who visit each year. But now, under new government proposals, the very system which shaped that much-loved landscape is said to threaten to damage the national park and its economy beyond repair.

Under plans being put forward by ministers in the name of cutting red tape, landowners would be allowed to convert any barns they want to homes or even to demolish them and build new houses, all without needing to obtain planning permission. They argue that the planning system as it stands is too slow and stifling development. If implemented the proposals promise a financial windfall for farmers but conservation groups and planners say it would be a catastrophe for the national park.

All national parks would be affected by the plans – the North York Moors authority has called them misguided - but the Dales is considered particularly at risk. It has more than 6,000 barns scattered across the valley floors, some 4,500 of them isolated field barns, and many are no longer needed for their original purpose. Finding a new use for them has been a problem but the current proposals have created a nightmare vision of a suburbanised Dales, with once-isolated barns surrounded by the clutter of domestic living, sprouting gardens, garages, fences, washing lines and trampolines, all swamping the open countryside visitors travel from around the world to see. At its worst a valley like Swaledale, where the barns are a particular feature, could be transformed into a kind of low density housing estate, they say.

‘It is the biggest issue we have had to face during my entire professional career,’ says David Butterworth, the park’s chief executive. ‘The damaging effects on the Dales landscape and economy have just not been thought through.’

The Campaign to Protect Rural England goes even further. It says the character of the Dales, would be irreparably harmed. Its senior planning campaigner, Paul Miner, said: ‘The character of the Dales would be damaged irretrievably if even some of the field barns there were allowed to be converted. Landowners and farmers may welcome these proposals as a licence to print money and get around the planning system but the Government should abandon these proposals and live up to its claims that it wants local people to have a say about development in their area.’

The environmental charity, the Yorkshire Dales Society, is also fiercely opposed to the idea and warns that cluttering the valley-bottom fields with homes would undermine the vital tourism industry that in turn underpins large parts of the local economy. Its chairman, Dr Malcolm Petyt, said the associated access roads, garages, outbuildings and infrastructure for new housing would massively damage the attractiveness of the Dales to visitors.

Nor would the changes do anything to solve the long-standing problems of providing affordable homes for local people, many of whom are on relatively low pay in the agricultural and tourism sectors. He said: ‘If implemented, this proposal could result in thousands of isolated field barns being converted into upmarket homes that would be sold at inflated prices on the open market, resulting in a flood of high priced housing out of the reach of local families.’

David Butterworth agrees. In recent years the park authority has had a policy that new homes must be sold to local people, who over many years have been steadily priced out of the area by well-heeled retirees and people earning high salaries elsewhere looking for second homes. ‘These proposals totally trash that policy and will do nothing to help local families,’ he said.

‘We can see what the Government is trying to do but the effect on the Dales would be terrible. The government is pledged to localism but they have abandoned that here. This is a policy dreamed up in Whitehall and Westminster where they simply do not understand the Dales landscape. The idea is so wacky the government has to think again when they come to examine the responses they have had.’

He added that earlier relaxations of the planning system which allowed business premises to be converted to homes had already begun to create problems as owners cashed in on the demand for houses and second homes in attractive areas. ‘Because of that we have lost some of the micro businesses that were providing jobs. That creates difficulties but this idea is so much worse. It cannot be allowed to go through,’ he said.

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