The present pattern of settlement in the countryside has evolved over many centuries. This has been influenced by the town and country planning system only in the last 65 years. The first wave of development plans sought to concentrate development in existing towns and their edges and in new towns. There was little study or understanding of how rural communities work in terms of employment, housing needs, travel journeys and lifestyle choices. In rural areas a rigid settlement hierarchy was imposed with development channelled towards market towns and identified key villages where it was assumed (sometimes wrongly) that growth would be matched by services and facilities. Hardly any development was to take place in the smaller villages and wider countryside.
This restrictive hierarchical approach lasted for over 20 years. Not until 1989 was the “key villages” policy seriously questioned. It began to disappear in development plan reviews in the 1990s. In 1995 the Government recognised that it was no longer tenable to view designated areas (National Parks, AONBs, Green Belts) in isolation from the rest of the countryside. Particularly strong policies on landscape protection and rural development applied in these areas. Nevertheless development plans continued to take highly restrictive stances both inside and outside designated areas. This was reinforced by the stance of regional strategic frameworks which paid little attention to rural concerns and focussed overwhelmingly on urban developments. When, in 2004, rural planning policy guidance was reviewed, there was an emphasis on strict control of new building development in the open countryside away from existing settlements and on concentration of development outside towns on larger villages. There was however a thaw on attitudes to re-use and replacement of buildings in the countryside. On re-use this was supported for appropriately located and suitably constructed buildings, with preference for economic development though residential use was not ruled out. On replacement of suitably located buildings of permanent design and construction, this was supported for economic uses.
More flexible thinking continued to develop. In 2008 the former MP Matthew Taylor published “Living Working Countryside” which called for more realistic and flexible policies to promote thriving local economies, vibrant villages and empowered communities. There was due recognition of the vital role of availability of latest technology and accommodation of work from home lifestyles. The outgoing Government welcomed much of his findings and undertook to adjust policy. This has now been taken up by the present administration but the only guide to their thinking is contained in the deliberately concise National Planning Policy Framework (“NPPF”) summary. On rural economic matters the framework says that planning strategies, in maintaining a prosperous economy, should include policies which support the sustainable growth of rural businesses, promote the development and diversification of agricultural businesses and support sustainable rural tourism and leisure development which respect the character of the countryside. Taking rural housing, local planning authorities are urged to be responsive to local circumstances and plan housing developments to reflect local requirements. A measure of market housing is advocated as a way of facilitating additional affordable housing to meet local needs. There is no mention of any settlement hierarchy or concentration of development in certain villages but there is a valid reaffirmation of the need to avoid isolated homes in the countryside unless there are special circumstances (e.g. essential need for a rural worker to live permanently at or near their place of work in the countryside). The misplaced assumption that small rural settlements are de facto not sustainable seems finally on its way out.
The National Planning Policy Framework will take some time before the new approach is reflected in the policies of the latest development plans. In the meantime a fair number of rural planning appeals are being allowed where the Inspector feels policy or its interpretation is over-restrictive.
A more realistic rural planning policy should emerge which allows small-scale housing or economic development (that is well located and designed) in small villages and hamlets as well as larger settlements, suitable tourist or leisure developments, re-use or replacement of existing buildings, and farm diversification schemes, including farm shops. To assist challenged agriculture and help replace lost jobs and services, farm diversification has been part of established policy for 8 years. There are innovative and successful examples across the countryside which have not resulted in loss of rural character. Different locations and circumstances will lend themselves to different activities. Organic change to meet new needs applies as much in the countryside as in the city. It is in the national as well as local rural interest that well-conceived business and other developments should proceed in promoting healthier more balanced communities.
 PPS7 – Sustainable Development in Rural Areas
 National Planning Policy Framework, DCLG (March 2012)