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16/11/2018

Sustaining rural estates – maintaining aristocracy or planning for the greater good?

Country Estate iStock

In our zest for maintaining countryside and rural heritage, we may be inadvertently holding back the rural economy, says Scott O'Dell

Stereotypes are often strong when it comes to rural estates and their owners – aristocratic with an abundance of riches and little social responsibility.

Many estates are cash-poor and asset-rich, with significant environmental, social and economic responsibilities. They are simply family-run businesses with a unique set of liabilities.

Beautiful country houses, farmsteads and acres of farmland are subject to high maintenance costs and disturbing levels of rural crime. Overlooked by stereotyping are the responsibilities of their owners, such as acting as landlords, providing rural employment, stewarding the countryside and preserving our heritage.

And copious responsibilities and physical assets require a secure and diverse funding stream. Traditionally, agriculture, directly or indirectly, forms the primary source of income for a rural estate. But we are all aware of current agricultural decline and Brexit uncertainty.

"Development is often the answer to unlock capital for reinvestment or establish an additional income"

So diversification and intensification has to be the answer. This in turn requires an understanding of rural issues and a willingness to address them through the planning system.

Tourism is a respectable form of diversification and clearly has public benefit, but it’s not always the most appropriate. There are other forms of diversification that also have wider benefits – development is often the answer to unlock capital for reinvestment or establish an additional income.

This might involve refurbishing buildings for residential or commercial use, renewable energy production, or provision of affordable or low-cost homes or new market housing on the edge of settlements. All can deliver clear environmental, social and economic gains, as well as generating revenue for an estate.

Diversification, however, comes with a challenging set of planning issues, especially when the small turns into the medium scale, or involves new-build elements.

In defined settlements the principle of development is often a given. This is never a luxury afforded to those proposing development in the countryside or green belt – even agricultural development, whether a worker’s dwelling or farm building, requires a compelling justification. This is not a criticism per se, but a bid to highlight the planning hurdles that are often raised due to a misconception of ‘protecting the countryside. Permitted development rights via national policy are a welcome addition in the fight for diversification and to address other rural planning issues. But we must still rely upon local planning authorities to take a pragmatic approach.

Scott O’Dell MRTPI is an associate planner at Fisher German LLP and a member of the East Midlands Young Planners committee

Photo | iStock

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