Richard Hawkes from Hawkes Architecture tells us about the exceptional circumstances in which planning for rural new builds may be granted.
Interview with Richard Hawkes
As planning is rarely granted for new rural homes, Richard had to learn what circumstances were considered exceptions. His expertise then led to work gaining planning consent for others in similar circumstances. Nowadays Richard even sits on a Design Review Panel, made up of professionals including landscape architects and engineers, that advises planners whether or not a proposal is meeting policy.
Planning policy allows rural development in exceptional circumstances
Paragraph 55 has four special circumstances that can permit a new dwelling in the countryside:
- An agricultural worker’s dwelling. It’s quite difficult to create a business case for these so they don’t happen very often.
- Re-use of a heritage asset, e.g. saving a listed building.
- Re-use of redundant farm buildings. Relaxation of permitted development legislation has made this moot for now.
- If the dwelling is of exceptional quality or innovative in its nature of design. All of Richard's Paragraph 55 projects fall into this last category.
Four tests determine if a design is sufficiently exceptional
For a dwelling to be of exceptional quality or innovative in its nature of design, it has to pass all of these tests:
- Help to raise the standards of design more generally in rural areas
- Be of the highest standards in architecture
- Significantly enhance the immediate setting
- Be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area
Paragraph 55 is an important design-led policy
Since Planning’s introduction in 1946, there has been a reluctance to approve new homes in the countryside. Green Belt, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), Heritage Coast and other designations evidence this. Even Paragraph 55, which Richard describes as a piece of national policy originally introduced in 1997 to enable landowners to get permission for their “English country house”, states that planning authorities should generally seek to resist new dwellings.
In 2003 the Labour government sought to get rid of Paragraph 55 which they felt was an elitist policy, but were lobbied by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) who argued the policy would move forward dwelling design. As a result, the policy evolved into PPS 7, Paragraph 11 and actually used the term ‘contemporary architecture’.
The policy recognises the mediocrity of typical dwelling design, and has a practical significance in terms of architects’ professional development. It encourages them to learn how to respond to a setting and produce amazing buildings. Richard explains that the principles of good design can be looked at entirely objectively, even if people’s responses to design are inherently subjective.
Sustainability must be factored into the design
A beautiful house isn’t enough. A house of the highest standards in architecture will incorporate lots of insulation, heat recovery ventilation, triple-glazing, and passive solar gain. Richard describes these Passivhaus principles as just sensible design and something planners would expect to see in a Paragraph 55 scheme, not reasons why they would grant consent.
The nature of the site and its management will often tie in to the energy strategy they develop for each individual building.
There are different types of Paragraph 55 (or PPS 7) house
Some locations suit a contrasting building, like an English country house. Richard describes this as unapologetically “dominating its landscape. Enhancing it but very much in contrast to it.”
Conversely, one of his own Paragraph 55 houses on a Green Belt / AONB site needed to show sensitivity to the defining characteristics of the local area and significantly enhance the immediate setting. His architecture enhanced the farmstead by reinforcing the positive qualities of stable buildings on the site while removing other buildings that were “detractors”.
Likelihood of planning consent must first be weighed up
Richard’s team must first establish whether the site has the right ingredients to get a planning consent. He uses the analogy of a set of weighing scales, and there are several factors weighing down the ‘wrong side’:
- You’re not allowed to build a house in the open countryside.
- In Green Belt, there is the principle of openness. If the site has other buildings on it, you can potentially look at “consolidating building form” as a strategy. If there are no buildings there at all, it becomes very difficult.
- AONB are protected by National Policy. It is possible, but more complex as these are highly protected pieces of land.
- If it’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or on top of a hill, any development is likely to have a big visual impact.
No one can guarantee planning consent, so Richard tries to manage that risk. To “balance the scales” he carries out a rigorous analysis of local and national policy to find benefits that could come with a scheme.
The landscape and architecture have to work together
Assuming there’s a robust enough case to proceed, Paragraph 55 applications are not for the faint-hearted; they represent a big investment on the client’s part and are about the land as much as the house. It takes months before Richard will even know what they’re designing.
Time is spent with landscape architects and commissioning reports and surveys to adequately understand the ecology, biodiversity and resources of the site. This long process uncovers minute details about animals, sun, prevailing wind direction, climate and geology.
Richard explains that involving a landscape architect right at the start helps them to lay down some rules about the site: sensitivities to avoid and opportunities to embrace. The ‘master plan’ is holistic and everything included in the plan can be justified.
Examples of ways to enhance the landscape might include:
- Binding the site together with areas of woodland
- Linking habitats
- Bolstering woodland edge
- Introducing wildflower areas and a proper mowing regime to increase biodiversity
- Putting management plans in place
Designs reflect a rigorous understanding of the site and client
The practice’s design framework originates from Richard’s self-build experience. He developed the design for Crossway using two distinct, parallel processes. Firstly, responding to the client (his wife) meant considering the “mechanics of a plan”. These are things like securing the best views, ensuring low running costs, opening up the house to the south, etc. A client lifestyle analysis is done, including everything from what time they wake up to how often they entertain.
The other process is analysing how the landscape changes as you approach the plot from different directions, to determine what the house needs to do sculpturally to respond to each of the views. This was something Richard did intuitively with his piece of land: “For me, the context of any site has got rich things for you to respond to. You’ve just got to find them.”
The design then emerges from these two processes. Crossway’s distinctive arch grew from a desire for the house to sit in amongst the ecology and the biodiversity of the land. And the design for one client project interpreted the qualities of the local flint to respond to the “defining characteristics of the local area”; the building is sharp and crisp outside, like the inside of flint but the white, soft-flowing curves of the courtyard evoke the outside of the stone.
We need to keep pushing house design forward
As well as acting as a good training mechanism for architects, Richard has a philosophical argument for protecting Paragraph 55. “If the policy weren’t there, I’d find that quite a sad reflection on where we are with design, where we are as a country with architecture. Look at all these houses going up with no aspirational policy there. I’d find that quite a sad place to be and quite short-sighted.”
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