Ask an Architect: Countryside Homes and Paragraph 55

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Alan from Surrey asks, “For some years, I’ve been sitting on a rural site with tremendous potential but its proximity to a Green Belt makes it risky for development. I understand Paragraph 55 grants exceptions in cases such as mine but how does it work?”

Building a new home in the countryside is desirable because it is rare; the chance to create a precious and personal corner of the world. Paragraph 55 of the National Planning Policy allows new life to be injected into Britain’s renowned and historic heritage of country homes without disturbing the landscape that makes them so prestigious in the first place.

The policy exists to encourage exceptional home building, with ‘exceptional’ being truly literal. It allows one of a kind, bar raising projects to continue in rural areas – even Green Belts – where development is otherwise impossible. It is something of a loophole, but one that is afforded only through the highest standards of quality or innovation.

It also amplifies every risk in the planning process. The costs are higher than a typical build (tens to hundreds of thousands of pounds in the planning process alone) and the chance of approval is far lower.

If Para 55 is a route you’re considering, the inherent risk means that your role won’t extend far beyond providing the capital and choosing an architect you trust wholeheartedly. They need to be able to create a design that complements the specific character of the site and can argue its merits across a range of highly subjective criteria.

The “special circumstances” that permits a new, isolated countryside build are (verbatim from the document):

  • the essential need for a rural worker to live permanently at or near their place of work in the countryside; or
  • where such development would represent the optimal viable use of a heritage asset or would be appropriate enabling development to secure the future of heritage assets; or
  • where the development would re-use redundant or disused buildings and lead to an enhancement to the immediate setting; or
  • the exceptional quality or innovative nature of the design of the dwelling. Such a design should:
    • be truly outstanding or innovative, helping to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas;
    • reflect the highest standards in architecture;
    • significantly enhance its immediate setting; and
    • be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area.

The final bullet point demonstrates the near impassible standards that can be defined at the whim of planning officers or the committee they assemble to help decide the case. Innovation, in particular, can be a sticking point as it limits the use of safe, proven-to-be-effective design choices and removing the usual safety net provided by precedent.

The site itself is as essential to success as the design. A characterless site lacking potential will be just as doomed as a shoddy build. Both home and setting need to be in complete harmony, achieving the sense that the building fits; that it is meant to be there.

It’s a highly involved planning process that lives or dies based on the relationship and respect for the local authority. The architect must truly believe in the build and be willing to invest personally into it, touring officials around the site and taking their feedback seriously.

Along with the quality and quantity of consultants added into the mix, this is what makes the process so expensive and time consuming. Willing and able architects do not come cheap nor are they common.

As you would hope from such an investment, the rewards are incomparable. Para 55 homes are the pinnacle of rural domestic architecture, drawing from and adding to a quintessentially British tradition of beautiful countryside homes. Plus, as an asset, they enjoy an exclusive and extraordinarily high value market.

To add our own – and potentially your own – contribution to this tradition, we’ve partnered with Hughes Planning, consultants who specialise in the lofty field of Para 55.

If you have the time, I recommend reading this extensive article on Paragraph 55 from Homebuilding & Renovating Magazine to get a full picture of the exciting and testing opportunities it provides.

If you have any questions of your own, send them to [email protected] with the title “Ask an Architect” and they could be featured right here in our blog.

By John Dyer-Grimes