HL Deb 24 January 1973 vol 338 cc231-42

6.17 p.m.

LORD GISBOROUGH rose to ask Her Majesty's Government, in view of the demand by farmers to build their retirement homes on their own farm land and of their overwhelming territorial association with that land, whether planning consent may be allowed to them without such consent being held as a precedent to enable other people to build in the open country. The noble Lord said: My Lords, as amalgamations of farms take place and farmers retire, or as, having farmed all their lives, they hand over to their sons at an ever earlier age in order to guard their families from being thrown off their farms by the effects of death duties, they apply for planning permission to build retirement houses on a piece of their land perhaps not far from their villages, perhaps not far from the local pub they have known all their lives, and on the land which they have known arid worked all their lives. Over and over again county planning committees, presented with these applications, turn them down. These applications are referred to the county by the area planning officers because the area committee has usually wished to grant permission against the advice of the planning officer, and the planning officer has taken the dispute to the county. The area planning committees have, with local knowledge and with local sympathy, wished to grant permission; and so have the planning officers and the county planning committees. But they know that if they do then other people will apply to build houses alongside those retirement houses, using those retirement houses as a precedent: that they will probably succeeed in getting permission, if necessary on appeal: and that in no time there will be a ribbon or sporadic development on all sides of the village. So the farmer looks again for a house in the village, probably without success, and eventually finds himself in the local town or in a different area. Very often it is a matter of great hardship and distress for the farmer, and many times he has a feeling of injustice, such as that indicated in letters which have been sent to me and which perhaps only a countryman will appreciate.

One answer, perhaps, lies in the policy which certain counties are adopting; that of converting farm buildings. As old farm buildings and farmsteads become obsolete and uneconomic through the merging of acreages, and as stock gets congregated into large, umbrella-like brick buildings, it enables these farmsteads to be converted into country cottages and small settlements. There is a big demand for these small cottages, particularly in the National Parks, either as a main house or, if for nothing else, as holiday cottages. There are several problems with this policy; problems of sewerage, conservation, landscape and so on. Each case is, in fact, decided on its merits. But these considerations are more beneficial to the public who may want their country cottage than to the farmer who is retiring.

The answer which I think could be worth considering is a new form of planning consent which is not available under the present law. Where a new man can prove "overwhelming territorial association" (a phrase I have used for lack of a better) with a piece of land; that is to say, that he has farmed it for twenty years, the authority should be able to give him planning permission for a new house under a new section of the Act. Then it would be inadmissible for the permission for that house to be used as a precedent by anybody else applying to build a house nearby. Thus the farmer will have his way and the planning authorities will be satisfied. An obvious problem is that of what happens when the farmer dies. Some farmers have already succeeded in getting a house near their farms for their retirement in cases where the area planning officers have not felt strongly enough to take the matter to the county. Obviously, in these cases they have considered that the risk is acceptable. There would obviously be a need for only one retirement house per holding. When the farmer dies, the family would have to take appropriate action to reserve that house for themselves for when they need it. This has happened many times. Young farmers, the sons, have moved into that house which is perhaps much more economical to run. Perhaps the old farmhouse has been divided, modernised and turned into two houses for farmworkers.

Another obvious question is of what happens if the system gets abused. Farmers could apply to build a house and then sell it and go off and live elsewhere. Just as a farmworker's cottage can be built under the condition that it is used only for farmworkers, so should these houses be built conditional upon their being occupied by the farmer in his retirement. All these things have lots of "ifs" and "buts" about them. It is possible to tear anything to pieces. Nothing is perfect. But I think that by and large it is a system which would work. Where it has already happened, where farmers have had their retirement houses, there does not appear to have been any abuses—certainly not in my part of the world.

Young farmers these days are less inclined to work for seven days a week and 52 weeks a year. They all want holidays and the odd weekend off. This can be extremely difficult when there is stock to be fed and cows to be milked; so there would be an advantage in having an older farmer not too far away who could help on these occasions, who could come in at lambing time and harvest time. This would allow the old farmers to keep an active interest and to have an active retirement. And it is a two-way help; for when the old farmers have got beyond helping the young farmers, the latter are in a position to be not too far away to help the retired farmers in their old age.

When the new local government planning set-up is operated, one must remember that the area planning committee will become the district planning committee and will no longer be able to refer disputes to the county planners. The district planning committee, like the area planning committee now, with local sympathies and knowledge, will allow these farmers to have their retirement houses on their farms. So, without a change in the Act, the kind of permissions which we must learn to expect will establish a precedent. It will no doubt allow other people to build houses in the country alongside the farmers' retirement houses and we must expect to see ribbon development and sporadic development outside the villages. It may be said that if one allowed more retirement houses under this proposed new section which one might introduce, it would be easier for isolated houses to "adopt" the countryside. They will in any case with the new district planning committees; so it is a question of whether one has houses dotting the countryside or whether one has holdings or houses accompanied by ribbon development and sporadic development. Even as a rabid conservationist of rural areas, I do not abhor the building of isolated cottages, but I should like to see stricter controls and a more imaginative standard of siting and design, of elevation and of materials. I believe that with care the individual house can enhance the countryside.

It is not necessary for me to say more other than to repeat that at the moment many farmers feel a sense of hardship and injustice that they cannot retire on the land of their fathers or of their lifetime. Again, I warn that under the district planning procedure, when disputes cannot be referred to the county, we must expect that the farmers will get permission to build, that precedents will be established and that this will lead to ribbon development and sporadic development.

6.27 p.m.


My Lords, I added my name to the list on finding that the noble Lord was in the position of having to start a debate with nobody but a Government speaker on the list of speakers to question what he said or to support it. For that reason he was good enough to agree that I might join in. I should like to support the proposal that he has made. I do not think that he has defined what kind of farmer he is thinking of: whether it is the owner occupier, the tenant farmer or even a bailiff. For instance, in my own case I am here because of the excellence of my bailiff. After 30 years he might also have qualified. Therefore, when this matter is considered it should presumably cover types of farmers. I entirely support the noble Lord's arguments on grounds other than that of the retired farmer situation. We on the farms have no neighbours. If we asked townsmen to retire to circumstances similar to those to which farmers like to retire, they would regard it as an intolerable burden and would be very bored. Surely a superannuation house, attached more often than not as a regular practice to farmsteads, would provide a certain neighbourly assistance not only in the agricultural department but to the women—for instance, in baby sitting—and it would enable the family as a whole to get out while somebody looked after those things which must be looked after.

I appreciate the difficulties of the administrators—and this is my last point. There must be a category; otherwise the administrator will always be in the very difficult position which I illustrate by an old chestnut, a limerick, which runs: A diner got up and said, 'Phew!, I've found a small mouse in my stew.' Said the waiter, 'Don't shout And wave it about; The others will all want one, too'. That is the answer. If it is a house, it is wanted even more than a mouse. If there is a category to which they can refer, the administrators will say that "the law provides". Otherwise, you will have local opinion in the area, knowing the matter and saying that the administrators have a favourite spot for this particular farmer. Without legislation, it seems to me to be difficult for the bureaucrat, to whom an anomaly is always absolute anathema. That anomaly is possible only if it is provided for in the legislation.


My Lords, for the same reason as was given by the noble Earl, Lord Lytton, I too wish to join in this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, for introducing this subject which I think will be understood by all who have ever lived in the country. I will make a mini-speech. The idea of the dear old farmer, after all his active years, retiring and building himself a house and watching the grass grow on his favourite farm is a lovely one. The danger is caused by the knavish tricks of the developer, for which we have to watch out. Developers are with us in strength. A developer could say to the farmer: "George, you are going to retire. You are selling your stock and implements. You will be selling your cows and your pigs—if you are allowed to take them to market—and then that will be your chips. You could go off to your aunt's house outside Harrogate and live there. But listen to me. I want to help you because I like you. You put in an application to build a house on your own land. I will build it for you and it will cost you nothing, and then I will buy it from you when it is built." My Lords, I think "nuff said"!

6.32 p.m.


My Lords, we must all feel sympathetic with the aim of the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough. We all know of many cases in the country where everyone would like to see this happen. It is very reasonable that when a farmer gets too old to run his farm himself he may still want, if he can, to keep close to his old home and the fields which have been his whole life. I think, therefore, that it would be the hope of us all that planning authorities would be as sympathetic as possible in cases of that kind. But I see certain difficulties about giving, as it were, an automatic right. I think that various difficulties will stem from that.

One knows of cases where a retired farmer has built himself a bungalow and, unfortunately, has died or moved away somewhere else, and someone from the nearby town has come to live in the bungalow. That has been a stroke of luck for the person who was given the opportunity to live in the bungalow. I agree with the aspiration of my noble friend that some way should be found to make it possible, in genuine cases, for people to be able to live close to their old home. The noble Lord was quite right when he said that it is often a great advantage to have someone who has retired living close to the farm so that he may be available in an emergency. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend Lord Sandford has to say, because I can see certain difficulties in the proposal which has been made to give an automatic right.

6.34 p.m.


My Lords, I have put down my name to speak on this Unstarred Question, although somewhat late in the day, and I endorse and support what has been said by previous speakers, and especially by my noble friend Lord Gisborough. I was interested in the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Elles, in the first debate to-day about the plight of the elderly relative. She mentioned a different aspect of this matter but one which relates to this Unstarred Question; namely, what happens to the parent or elderly relative if no planning permission is granted for a second house to be built on the property. Let us suppose that there are four options. One would be to look for another house in the nearby village or town; the second would be to seek planning permission for a temporary dwelling; the third would be to search for a sufficiently large caravan; and the final, and most unpalatable, option would be to consider putting the relative into a home.

My noble friend Lady Elles mentioned the cost of accommodation in a home as being roughly £30 to £40 a week. I have seen homes where elderly people are looked after, not particularly well or in particularly comfortable surroundings, for these enormous charges, and I wish to stress to the Government, purely from a welfare viewpoint, that this is an important matter. There are few places available in homes run by local authorities and surely, therefore, it should be incumbent on planning authorities—if the directors of the social services and the planning authorities think along parallel lines—to see that this question of planning permission is considered. Some local authorities genuinely beleve that they are fulfilling their duty by denying planning permission. I agree with my noble friend Lord Gisborough that that is a product of the urban mind. It is the case that the proportion of the population concerned with the land amounts to approximately 3 per cent. and that 97 per cent. of the people dwelling in this country are not concerned with agriculture. So it is natural that they should not be able to understand the outlook of those who are concerned with the land.

It seems to me that the question is whether the developer will get a look in. May I suggest—and I hope this suggestion is in line with the proposal of my noble friend—that there might be a second option in respect of planning permission; that is, not necessarily for a permanent dwelling, but for a temporary dwelling or an encroachment upon the site which would have a life of 15 to 20 years, and then the planning permission would cease. If a farmhouse lay in a conservation area where a new dwelling would be unsightly in the long term, surely there would be a case for encroachment and some relaxation. That would not let in the developer and it would deny the charge which has been levelled.

6.38 p.m.


My Lords, it was not my intention to take part in the debate, because when the list of speakers first appeared there was on it only the names of the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, and the Minister, but since then the number of speakers has multiplied to at least five so I think I may say a word on the subject. I was interested in what the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, had to say, although I did not quite follow his argument. Apparently he thought that there was difficulty in paying death duties and he spoke about a person's being thrown off the land and having a new house—all at the same time. I should have thought that the person who paid the death duties would have departed this life and therefore would not be interested in having a house, because he would have gone to one of his Father's mansions and that would solve the problem for him.

I should like the Minister to give consideration to what was done in the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) legislation. As your Lordships will know, one of the problems which prevented the amalgamation of small farms was that of housing accommodation. There might be two farms adjacent to each other and each too small to be an economic proposition separately, whereas amalgamated they would form a viable unit. Always the trouble was to find somewhere for one of the farmers to live. I think it was in the 1969–70 Bill that we went out of our way to make accommodation for the second farmer: in other words, to allow him to retain his house on his farm while amalgamating the farm. It seems to me that along those lines something could well be done. If you are going to try to inject planning permission into each of these cases, I think you are going to cause a fair amount of trouble. I agree with the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, who said that once you agree to this proposal anything can happen. The house then becomes a great difficulty, because in the end you find, not somebody who is retiring from a farm but someone who is looking for a country residence. That can mean difficulty inside the farming industry.

While I understand the argument that the noble Lord, Lord Gisborough, was trying to make, I do not think we should pretend that this is a simple problem to solve. I should be glad if the Minister would give some thought to the Agriculture (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act which dealt with amalgamations and sought to deal with this particular problem at the same time, because perhaps along that road a solution might be found to the problem raised by the noble Lord to-night.

6.42 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Gisborough for having raised this matter, and I am sympathetic, as indeed I am sure we all are—and nobody put it better than the noble Lord, Lord Strange—with the point of view of people who have lived perhaps the greater part of their lives on a farm in the country and who wish on retirement to remain in the neighbourhood. We would not want farmers to have to struggle on in their work simply because they cannot face having to leave the area where they have worked and lived for so long. But I do not think we could encourage local planning authorities to permit retiring farmers to build new homes for themselves on their farmland if this involved a clear conflict with normal good planning principles. I believe that to build in the open country in situations unrelated to existing settlements would in general involve such conflicts. In this context, I would say that there is nothing in the changes in local government that are coming about on April 1, 1974, which of itself will alter the legislation on which these policies are based or the Development Control Policy Notes by which the local planning authorities are being guided.

On the other hand—and this was a solution to which my noble friend Lord Sandys was looking—where a farmer has land, or could obtain it, in a situation where a new dwelling would make a suitable addition to an existing village or hamlet, planning permission might reasonably be granted unless there were special planning policies applying in the area: for example, where the village was within the Green Belt and was not to grow at all. If a proposal put forward by a farmer was on planning grounds finely balanced, then the personal circumstances of his territorial associations with the land and the locality might well tip the scales in his favour. I can assure my noble friend that on appeal to my right honourable friend any evidence given of this kind is very carefully considered, but, as I have already said, it is unlikely to outweigh the general strong planning objections. We have to bear in mind, as both my noble friends Lord Gisborough and Lord Amory mentioned, that though a house might be permitted initially to meet a purely personal need, the house is certainly going to remain where it was built long after the personal circumstances of the original applicant cease to be material. This is a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, also rightly drew our attention.

My Lords, I think the House would agree that the case for allowing a house in the country for a retiring farmer can be distinguished clearly from that of a house needed for the running of a farm. If it is established that there is a long-term need for an agricultural worker to live on a farm to be near animals which he has to look after, then planning policies do not preclude the building of an additional house. But clearly care must be taken in the siting of such dwellings, and authorities will be concerned to ensure that a dwelling is in fact reserved I for an agricultural worker. There is certainly plenty of scope for abuse here if that policy is not strictly enforced. To this end, planning authorities will in general impose a condition limiting occupancy in this way. Such conditions do not preclude a retired worker from remaining in a farm dwelling. That, I think, meets the point made by my noble friend Lord Sandys about the compassion which we should show to, for instance, the widow of a retired agricultural worker, who can also without infringing the conditions remain in a farm cottage where this is acceptable to the farmer. But it would not be appropriate to impose a condition limiting occupancy of a new house to a retired farmer.

There are fortunately, however, other ways in which retiring farmers may be able to obtain houses in the country near where they have farmed. I would think that the increase in productivity of labour on farms, and also to some extent the amalgamation of farm holdings, which the noble Lord, Lord Hoy, mentioned, are resulting in a continuing fall in the agricultural labour force, and in many areas existing farm cottages are no longer required for farm workers. A retiring farmer may therefore be able to retain for his own use such a property on his own land, or to acquire one from a neighbour. Where the standard of such a dwelling is not suitable for the farmer in its existing state, he may well be able to improve it, possibly with financial assistance from the local authority. Many of these improvements do not require planning permission, and, even where they do, the local planning authority will often be ready to look favourably on an application from such a person for such a purpose. Where an existing house would not he suitable for improvement in this way, the site might prove acceptable to a local planning authority for a new dwelling.

My Lords, I think I have gone as far as I can in showing how a retiring farmer is likely to be able to find a house for himself in the area in which he has farmed without overturning planning policies and without requiring any special policy in his favour. After having looked at this with some care, I think this is the right way to tackle the problem that we have been discussing. But I am grateful to my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to discuss it and to have the benefit of his views on it and those of other noble Lords.