To mark the draft release of the new National Planning Policy Framework, Studio Bark has written to every local authority in the country, to create a map of planning applications that reference the ‘country house clause’.
What is Paragraph 55?
Paragraph 55 refers to a section of the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) relating to building new isolated homes in the open countryside.
If there ever was a part of a planning policy that could be described as truly ‘interesting’, then Paragraph 55 of the NPPF would be one of the contenders. For a client, the policy allows the possibility to build an unprecedented home on a piece of land that would otherwise be unsuitable development, and in so doing, to commission and own a bespoke piece of architecture.
The majority of national planning policy is strongly weighted against development in open countryside. For example, the network of designated green belts were established to prevent urban sprawl, limiting rural development to agricultural uses. Paragraph 55 is an exemption clause within the NPPF that leaves open a route through planning policy for landowners hoping to build their own home.
A re-hash of ‘Gummers Law’ and the old ‘PPS7’, ‘Paragraph 55’ recognises the long tradition of English countryside homes with a new twist of innovation. It mandates that local planning authorities should avoid new isolated homes in the countryside unless there are ‘special circumstances’ such as the exceptional quality or innovative nature of the proposal.
In the six years since the NPPF was introduced, the take up for Paragraph 55 designs has been relatively slow, in part due to the challenging and subjective nature of the policy.
Current Policy: Paragraph 55
Paragraph 55 states that local planning authorities should avoid new isolated homes in the countryside unless there are special circumstances. The most relevant of the ‘circumstances’ to architectural design is the final bullet point:
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.
Planning Court: The meaning of “new isolated homes” in NPPF para. 55
DATE: 04 Dec 2017
Paragraph 55 of the National Planning Policy Framework for England states that local planning authorities should “avoid new isolated homes in the countryside” unless there are “special circumstances”, examples of which are then given. When would a new home be an “isolated home”?
In Braintree District Council v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government  EWHC 2743 (Admin), the Council challenged the decision of a planning inspector that a proposal for new housing in the countryside would not result in new “isolated homes” because “there are a number of dwellings nearby”. The Council submitted that this could not be reconciled with the inspector’s view that the accessibility of the proposed site to “services, facilities and employment” would be “poor”.
Lang J rejected the Council’s case, agreeing with the Secretary of State that the word “isolated” in paragraph 55 of the NPPF should be given its ordinary, objective meaning. This is a home “far away from other places, buildings, or people; remote” (Oxford Concise English Dictionary). A home that is “isolated from services and facilities” is not, therefore, necessarily an “isolated home” as the Council contended. The judge agreed that this would be to add an unwarranted gloss to the word “isolated” as it is used in the NPPF.
2018 Changes to National Policy
On 5th March 2018, the government put forward a document of proposed changes to the NPPF for consultation. The corresponding draft policy for consultation appears to be changing in name only to ‘Paragraph 81’ at the time of writing. The only other minor change is the proposed amalgamation of the four bullets into two, as follows:
The design is of exceptional quality, in that it:
– is truly outstanding or innovative, reflecting the highest standards in architecture, and would help to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas; and
– would significantly enhance its immediate setting, and be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area.
Whilst there has been speculation around the extent of changes to the NPPF, the consultation draft may provide ongoing assurance that there remains a place for exciting architecture in rural locations.
Studio Bark and Paragraph 55
Studio Bark gained its first approval in 2013 with a project called Periscope House. Aired on Channel 4’s Grand Designs it led to a number of enquiries from people with plots in the countryside and we’ve had a steady stream of jobs and planning approvals ever since. Since that first approval we’ve learnt a lot about what Paragraph 55 strives for and we pride ourselves on being able to deliver the level of quality required.
As an environmentally focused practice we enjoy taking on Paragraph 55 schemes as it is a chance for us to really push the ecological credentials of a design in a way that is poetic and unique. We believe all new homes should have a minimal carbon footprint and where appropriate can also deliver homes are completely ‘off grid’. These schemes are an opportunity to specify state of the art technologies and test new products that are coming to the market.
To us, Paragraph 55 is an exciting piece of policy. We are pleased that it exists to protect the countryside yet also to offer creative possibility for the very best that Architecture can offer.
A soft, flexible approach
It is easy to assume with Paragraph 55 that a ‘bigger is better’ approach to project management is more likely to succeed. It is has been mentioned in early articles on Paragraph 55 that clients may need to be willing to spend up to £100,000 on gaining planning permission. Whilst this is no doubt a possibility, in our experience it is possible to gain Paragraph 55 approvals for a substantially lower figure.
We have found that taking a collaborative and flexible approach, establishing positive dialogue between various critiquing parties, is the best route to success, as opposed to taking a more adversarial approach.
In terms of planning, this approach gives the local authority the opportunity to comment upon proposals and assist in steering the development towards an approach that is more likely to gain approval.
A consistent theme is that the more sensitive the location, the more difficult to win over planning support, and indeed our most successful projects have been in stunning locations that have been close to – but not encompassed by – land designations such as AONB, flood zone, Green Belt or conservation area.
A project’s narrative is the story we use to explain the architecture. The more time we spend understanding a place and the people who will live there the stronger the narrative becomes. It may sound far-fetched but a strong narrative is a very useful design tool and can be instrumental in gaining an approval.
For our Paragraph 55 approval ‘Orchard House’ in Warrington, the narrative was derived from an early conversation with the client, who recalled fond memories of spending time in the former Orchard, helping his Grandfather operate the Rotavator and his Grandmother pick the fruit 40 years earlier. The justification that he could use the dwelling to remain here as custodian moving was a strong one, and found favour with the local community. It is important to that the planners need to also consider the building objectively in the context of potential future owners and communities, so an owner’s story is not a ‘Silver Bullet’. That said, without a personal narrative, or indeed if there is seen to be an overtly commercial or profit driven interest in the land, the project may be much less likely to succeed.
The importance of the architectural narrative is no less important. Our most recently approved Paragraph 55 scheme was on the site of a medieval glebe, where ox and cart would once have been used to plough the field and land would have been divided into furlongs and strips. This provided the start of a narrative that was very much tied to the local place but allowed enough scope to develop a modern landscape driven proposal. Decision making about what the house should look like, what it should be constructed from and how people should move through it related back, at every step, to this concept. In this way the design had a justification that could be demonstrated to various critiquing parties. The resulting scheme showed how a piece of contemporary architecture could still be very much ‘of its place’ even when it doesn’t mimic the local traditional aesthetic.
Local support can provide a stepping stone to support at Planning Committee, and the influence of the Parish council should not be underestimated. The best advice we are able to give to our clients is that the parish should be consulted at an early stage to make sure that local people can make their voices heard and given the opportunity to make suggestions. At the parish meeting for our Black Barn proposal we had a particularly productive session with the local community, and were even able to gain a number of letters of support, which were submitted alongside the main planning package.
The support was helped in part by a detailed physical model of the building, which has been one of our most successful in terms of demonstrating the clarity of architectural proposal.
We take a considered approach to our client’s financial risk, with break points at every stage so that the client does not have to commit to an entire planning fee in one go. For most of our clients, two weeks’ worth of work is sufficient to gain an early insight from the planning authority in the form of a ‘Pre-application submission’. From there, we give advice to help the client understand the risks and rewards of moving forward to a full application. We are selective in our recommendations and though we cannot guarantee approval, every Paragraph 55 project which we have submitted has gone on to receive planning approval.
We have found that taking a scheme to design review (often a requirement of Paragraph 55 applications) can reduce client risk. Most local authorities, but not all, place a great deal of weight on the outcome of the design review, in accordance with Paragraph 62 of the NPPF. While design reviews take time and do have an associated cost, they remove some of the risk associated with the planning system, as the final recommendation and decision (usually made at committee) is then influenced by experienced designers, who have spent time understanding the nuances of the proposal in question. For more information on design review please refer to ‘Test 1’ in the section ‘Analysis: The 4 bullets – what worked and what didn’t’.
Our clients play a pivotal role in the planning process; our projects which have been most successful have been as a result of a determined client, who has not been unduly daunted by the scale of the task ahead or swerved by the sometimes harsh nature of the set-backs.
Client / Architect relationship
A prerequisite of the policy means that each approved scheme is pioneering, whilst being sensitive to the defining characteristics of its place. A Paragraph 55 design team needs to work to achieve this, whilst at the same time finding something that meets the requirements and aspirations of each client. All projects may experience a degree of incompatibility between statutory requirements and the client brief, yet with paragraph 55 these differences have the potential to be all the more extreme. The design team needs to be mindful of the client’s preferences, whilst the client needs to be clear that certain design strategies are likely to offer a better chance of success.
Studio Bark’s Key Figures
Below is a summary table of our Paragraph 55 planning approvals, with links to the documents we prepared and submitted.
|Periscope House||Black Barn||Pivot House||Orchard House||Grain House|
|Design Review Panel?||Not requested||RIBA Suffolk Design Review Panel||Not requested||Not requested||Design South East|
|Decision date||22nd August 2013||11th Feb 2016||22nd September 2016||17th March 2016||22nd November 2017|
|Weeks from planning submission (Validation) to Planning Decision||7||11||32 ( delay caused by great crested newt survey)||9||9|
|Time from initial enquiry to planning decision||0 years
5 months,18 days
|Planning Authority||Broadland DC||Suffolk Coastal DC||Breckland Council||Warrington BC||Horsham District Council|
|Budget||0-250K||750K – 1M||750-1M||250K -500K||750K-1M|
|Committee win or appeal win||Committee||Committee||Committee||Committee||Committee|
|Website Project Page||Periscope House||Black Barn||Pivot House||Orchard House||Grain House|
|Link to planning portal||Periscope House planning documents||Black Barn planning documents||Pivot House planning documents||Orchard House planning documents||Grain House planning documents|
Studio Bark’s National Study
March 27th 2018 marked six years of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the contained policy Paragraph 55. In light of changes to the NPPF as released for consultation on 5th March, we spent some time reflecting on our experiences of Paragraph 55 to date.
As a practice working in the field of Paragraph 55, one thing we have been acutely aware of when discussing our own projects with local authorities, is the lack of data available about the number of successful Paragraph 55 applications for any given Local Planning Authority (LPA), the positive characteristics of projects that have been successful, and the reasons given for refusal.
Whilst there is already some useful information available for Paragraph 55, the data was spread across multiple websites, and was often too obscure to display in search queries. In addition, we realised that there was actually a very limited amount of quantitative data and it wasn’t possible to find answers even to simple questions such as, ‘How many Paragraph 55 homes are there?’
As the information we sought did not exist as a central resource we have taken it upon ourselves to compile our own database, asking two simple questions to each of the 327 Local Planning Authorities in England, the only country to which the policy applies:
- Has anyone sought to or been advised to use Paragraph 55 of the NPPF in an application?
- Have there been any approvals under this clause?
All findings received within the six week period of the study were used to build a live ‘Paragraph 55 Map’ showing the rough location of each application, along with other key statistics to allow others to interrogate the data.
What did we learn?
The very process of collating the information for the database has itself been very informative, giving great insight into the wide range of approaches taken by different local authorities.
Paragraph 55 is still seen as a valid justification for approval, even if local land supply targets have been met.
Historically there has been some confusion about the application of the policy: as an exception policy, Paragraph 55 exists to justify the building of new isolated dwellings, that are, by their nature, in unsustainable locations. Many of the decision notices we have gathered (including appeal statements by planning inspectors) wrongly cite this as a reason for refusal.
There appears to be an anecdotal disparity in opinion between local authorities as to whether Paragraph 55 is applicable in green belt land. We have seen from our study that the policy has been used in some green belts 18/00005/REF 16/03104/FU.
No two local authority websites are alike, though there are similar web structures in many. Even with a reasonably acute understanding of policy and planning processes we found many council websites challenging, and these may certainly have presented a real hurdle to an inexperienced user.
One resource that was been especially helpful to the study is the ‘Find Your LPA’ link on the Planning Portal. This shows up-to-date contact information for each Local Planning Authority, even when it may not be readily deduced from the council website.
Key figures of the dataset
Over 2/3 (226) of the 327 LPA responded to the study. Of these:
-70 (approximately 1 fifth) contained little or no rural land
-Of those who responded, we have recorded:
-66 approvals total
7 of these 66 approvals were as the result of a successful appeal
-43 refusals total
25 of these 43 refusals were the subject of an unsuccessful appeal
1 of these 43 were the subject of an appeal in progress at the time of the response
-6 applications withdrawn
-1 of these 6 were withdrawn at appeal stage
-12 submitted awaiting determination by the local authority at the time of the response
-74 local authorities reported that they had received no paragraph 55 applications
-30 authorities reported that they were unable to or would not provide further information.
-South Norfolk was the authority with the greatest number of applications, with 7 approvals, 10 refused, 7 appeals (all dismissed) 1 withdrawn and 1 submitted awaiting decision.
-Of the approvals, we have recorded examples in AONB, Green Belt and within designated Metropolitan Districts
-1 fifth contained little or no rural land (Metropolitan Districts and London Boroughs. We highlighted the 33 London Boroughs and 37 Metropolitan Districts separately on the map, as these were expected to have low volumes of rural lands.
-Of the remaining 101 LPAs who did not respond within the time period of the study, further responses will be collated as and when received.
What Worked and What Didn’t
The wording of Paragraph 55 has been much debated in recent years. The phrases ‘highest standards in architecture’ and ‘sensitive to the defining characteristics’ may seem trite, yet the value attached to the natural landscape means that each proposal must stand up to rigorous testing against each of these phrases. Each local authority must decide what passes this litmus test, but the quality is set at a national level and many have not approved a single proposal to date.
This section looks at individual proposals within the study, and the reasons for their approval or refusal in the context of the four ‘tests’ of Paragraph 55.
– 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.
– be truly outstanding or innovative, helping to raise standards of design more generally in rural areas
Paragraph 55 requires successful applications to be ‘truly outstanding’ OR ‘innovative’, which is in contrast to the predecessor PPS7 policy, whereby the project was tested as innovative AND outstanding. Interestingly, the vast majority of applications appear to have still aimed for both, and were therefore assessed on both by the Planning Inspectorate when an application was taken to appeal.
Perhaps the most notable element of this criteria is that the goalposts through which a scheme is assessed as ‘innovative’ are, through its nature, continually evolving. A Code 5/6 home, or a ‘Passivhaus’ may rightly have been deemed innovative in 2012, when the policy was introduced, but in 2018 a proposal could reasonably be expected to go much further in order to prove its innovative credentials.
Analysis of successful Paragraph 55 applications shows a common approach to tackling this first bullet point through a combination of best-practice ‘passive’ principles and environmental technologies. In one such instance the Planning Inspectorate was persuaded that through a fabric first design and underground energy storage in a residential context, that the nature of the proposal, and the potential contribution it would make to furthering research in the field of interseasonal energy storage and grid balancing, would be pioneering (App. Ref.: 14/01610/FUL).
A contradiction that often arises is when an applicant makes the case that a scheme is both limiting its visual impact through hiding the scheme from view, whilst also arguing that it is helping to raise standards of design in rural areas. This point is picked up on in one appeal statement for a scheme that was ultimately refused permission.
– Reflect the highest standards in architecture
Many may ask how this second criterion differs from the first, and indeed this is open for debate. (One Inspectorate differentiated the ‘truly outstanding or innovative” criterion as pertaining to the underpinning concept, while the ‘reflecting the highest standards in architecture’ point referred to delivery). In general, the reasons given for permission and refusal appear to use the four bullet point headings quite freely.
With ongoing cuts to local authorities many district and county councils no longer have in-house design teams, meaning that the ultimate decision about whether a scheme represents the ‘highest standards of architecture’ lies, conversely, with planners. Independent Design Review Services can offer a design-focused ‘judging panel’ and their critical role is evident in many decision and appeal statements. Design Review Panels (DRPs), such as the regionally managed Design Network, help local authorities to test Paragraph 55 houses against this and the other Para 55 criteria in an impartial manner.
It is not necessary for a successful Paragraph 55 home to be typical of the prevailing pattern of development if the architectural aesthetic is of a very high standard. Conversely, designs which simply imitated the vernacular were unlikely to proceed, though there have been rare examples of approvals in a classical ‘country house’ style.
Many proposals are for partly submerged houses – an approach that seems to be well received by many local authorities. Subterranean houses (App. Ref. 52796/001) can reduce visual impact and aid a smooth transition to the adjoining countryside, particularly where the site is an ‘edge of settlement’ location.
– Significantly enhance its immediate setting
In her insightful article “Para 55, buildings and the landscape” (Insight Magazine, March 2017) Alison Galbraith of Terra Firma notes the difficulties in convincing a planning authority that a proposal will ‘significantly enhance its immediate setting’. Galbraith notes that for landscapes untouched by human activity it may be impossible to effect any enhancement. However, in the UK true ‘virgin landscapes’ are few and far between. From an ecological perspective, agricultural land is already fairly low-grade – the result of centuries of human intervention. However this viewpoint is yet to be more widely adopted within planning policy.
Many landscape character assessments include management strategies which may offer clues to how a landscape can be restored, repaired or enhanced from a policy perspective.
The key issue in policy terms is whether the proposal home is integral to these landscape enhancement. The design team must persuade the planning authority that the proposed building is, in and of itself, an enhancement. While ultimately perhaps a matter of opinion, inclusion of some more objective evidence can be of assistance in building a case, including a Landscape Visual Impact Assessment (LVIA), ecological surveys and meaningful demonstration of how the proposal responds to these.
Successful proposals tend to have a landscape scheme and management plan, particularly for key landscape features such as areas of woodland. (App. Ref.: 133466) In the case of one site which had great potential but had been badly managed historically, a sensitive landscaping proposal was sufficient in persuading the Planning Inspectorate that the proposal would significantly enhance its setting. (App. Ref. C/15/76178)
In some appeal cases the planning inspectorate was satisfied with a proposal which brought some ecological benefits across the whole site and ‘significant enhancement’ to particular areas (App. Ref. 52796/001).
Where views of a proposal are available to the public, a number have designs have responded proactively, with successful designs seeking to celebrate their siting within the landscape (App. Ref.: DC/17/2107).
– Be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area
For a design to be ‘sensitive to’ requires a detailed exploration into architectural concept development, through sketch, plan and model making as well as further qualitative research into local craft and culture. This is a natural part of the architectural design process, and can be one of the most enjoyable for the design team.
Landscape Character Assessments (LCAs) are usually available on a local authority’s website, and can provide a useful starting point for design. Where more site specific information is required, a Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment, (LVIA) can be commissioned to help establish a ‘baseline’ from which the impact of the dwelling can be assessed objectively.
It is notable that the majority of refusals at appeal appear to have resulted from a failure of the applicant to convincingly demonstrate that their proposal meets this particular criterion. Schemes have been refused for being ‘out of kilter’ with the prevailing landscape due to irregular forms (App. Ref. 0671/14) or simply for being too large and therefore out of scale with the rural character (App. Ref.: P1567_14_FUL)
Often Paragraph 55 applications reflect a change of use from agricultural to domestic use, and there is a great deal of scope to fundamentally change the character of the site if a scheme is poorly considered. In relation to this, a concern for the detrimental impacts of domestic paraphernalia and associated activities (App. Ref.: 2012/62/92106/E) is also a common theme among refused applications.
Analysis of the data suggests that local authorities are open to schemes that deviate, often radically, from traditional architecture, on the premise that the proposal is an exemplary piece of 21st Century design. A modern dwelling can be deemed ‘sensitive to the defining characteristics’, and be congruous to even sensitive landscape settings, if it is sited well and the design responds positively to the setting in terms of materiality, scale and form (App. Ref.: 133466).
Where the proposal lies in an ‘edge of settlement’ location, the variety of materials, form and scale of buildings in that settlement or streetscene may be deemed a valid precedent for further deviation from the local vernacular (App. Ref.: 14/01610/FUL).
Contribute to the Study
We began this process with a review of our own Paragraph 55 approvals, looking through the submitted information and associated officer feedback, to try and draw some correlations. This process in itself was very useful, and has enabled us to draw together some frank insights into our own experiences. We are aware that by its very nature the information within the study is incomplete, and so we apologise in advance for any omissions or errors. It is through opening up the conversation beyond our own work that we have made the greater insights, and we hope in return that others will be able to help us to keep this as a useful resource for everyone.
If you would like to contribute to the research and/or have details of a specific application, please send the LPA and planning reference to [email protected]. Please add the code P55 into the subject line. We would be happy to discuss the dataset with any academic institution interested in collaborating.
- Our method
1.1 Setting up a Framework
To create the framework for the study, we set up a database file of each of the Local Planning Authorities (LPA) in England in order to categorise the responses we received. Note: Paragraph 55 applies only in England, not in Wales Scotland, Ireland or Northern Ireland.
We collated all of the email addresses into a mailing list, and sent the following email to each Local Planning Authority:
Dear Sir / Madam,
We are conducting a nationwide piece of research into paragraph 55 housing and are looking to find information on the following two questions:
1) whether you have had any applications that have sought to use the Paragraph 55 policy as the main justification for approval (or indeed if this has in fact been suggested by your officers as a possible route)
2) whether you have had any successful (or refused) paragraph 55 applications. Please give planning references.
It would great for the dataset to be able to have a complete set of responses so we would welcome your time in responding. In the interest of transparency we will be publishing all responses from each planning authorities with the Architect’s Journal, including where there has been no response.
Please could you reply to this email leaving ‘P55’ as the start of the subject line, as the emails will be filed automatically using this code. If you do not have any open countryside in your district, that would be useful knowledge too.
We thank you for your time.
A small number of Local Planning Authorities responded with a similar request for further information, so we then sent the following clarification,
Dear Sir / Madam,
To clarify, we refer only to applications under Paragraph 55 of the NPPF since March 2012, which use the final bullet point as justification, namely
- the exceptional quality or innovative nature of the design of the dwelling:
Other authorities have given a response from a senior planning officer/person who has a working knowledge of the applications. If you are able to provide something similar it would be most helpful, even if not exhaustive or definitive.
All responses were collated in an email mailbox, with a thank you message sent to those who had sent a response.
1.2 Data processing
A new record in the database was created for each of the LPA’s applications that were received, and each was categorised under the following headings:
- Submitted: A Planning application has been formally submitted to the Local Planning Authority but was yet to be determined at the time the data entry was recorded.
- Withdrawn: An application was submitted, but was withdrawn by the applicant before the date of determination.
- Refused: An application was submitted, but was refused by the LPA. No appeal was submitted by the application at the time the data entry was recorded.
- Refused, appeal submitted: A submitted planning application was refused at LPA decision level and an appeal was submitted by the applicant, but this was yet to be determined by the time that the data entry was recorded.
- Refused at appeal: A submitted planning application was refused at LPA decision level, and the decision was upheld by the Planning Inspectorate after an appeal by the applicant.
- Approved: A submitted planning application was formally approved
- Approved at appeal: A submitted planning application was refused at LPA decision level, but the decision was overturned by the Planning Inspectorate after an appeal by the applicant.
For each application, a link to the relevant LPA online portal was saved, and the following documents were also downloaded (where available):
- Design and Access Statement
- Planning Officer’s Committee Report
- Appeal Decision Report from the Planning Inspectorate
These documents were used to establish the name of the Architect/Designer involved in the project, and to establish early trends.
Where the LPA did not send details of applications, the results were categorised as follows:
- No Paragraph 55: The LPA reported that they were not aware of any submissions made, that sought to rely on the “exceptional quality or innovative nature of the design” under Paragraph 55 of the NPPF
- Urban/Minimal Rural Land: The LPA reported that they were primarily an urban authority and as such had no or a very minimal amount of land that could be classified as rural.
- Could / would not contribute: The LPA responded that they were unable or unwilling to provide the information to the study
- Did not respond: An initial email and subsequent follow up request was sent, but no response was received within the 6 weeks of the initial study period.
1.3 Upload of results
- A customised map was created using the google ‘My maps’ feature (link here).
- Boundaries were added onto the map using open source data files (link here). The open source map was incomplete, and the remaining boundaries were added manually.
- The map was cross referenced with the government CSV file (link here), which imported the name of the district authority.
- Data from a recognised government source was used to label ‘Metropolitan Districts’
- The links have been included on though these have not been uploaded to the map as a result of file size limitations.
- Known limitations of the data
2.1 Achieving a definitive study
Most local authorities do not keep detailed or definitive records, so much of the data has been collated through the informal recollection of local planning officers and/or our own research. As there is no specific paragraph 55 ‘category’ for applications, it is quite difficult to create anything more definitive.
Pre-applications have not been included for three reasons;
- Only a small number of local authorities provided information on pre-applications, so the data may not be representative
- Pre-applications are not typically available online, and so there is little information that would be of use to other practices
- Until such a point as the application has been submitted, the number and status of applications is quite volatile, and it may not even be known whether or not a project will be tested against the paragraph 55 criteria.
We do not have data on the number of paragraph 55 schemes that have been built – this is a potential area for future study.
2.2 Evolving data set
The database will begin to go out of date almost immediately, as new applications are submitted. Studio Bark will continue to manage the resource, and update any new known information from our own research, but it will not be possible to ensure that all of the information is up to date at any given time. To mitigate this, it will be possible for others to submit information to assist in keeping the map up to date. We would encourage others to get in touch if they have a new project that they would like to appear on the map, and for the benefit of everyone using the study. Please see 10 Contribute to the database for further details.
Locations are approximate: In order to process the large number of applications efficiently, we have placed the pinpoint on the map to the nearest postcode only.
Boundaries are approximate: The boundary data was imported from an open source data file of unknown origin. The data has been cross referenced against a government list of local authorities, but is not expected to be 100 complete or accurate.
- Analysis of Studio Bark’s Decision Statements
“It is proposed that the dwelling would meet level 6 of the Code for Sustainable Homes and therefore be a zero carbon property. To achieve this the following design principles have been adopted in the design of the dwelling:
Solar gain and solar shading
Highly insulated timber frame construction
Incorporation of thermal mass
Use of locally sourced timber and natural materials
Off grid heating and electricity
Whilst most dwellings would normally incorporate a small number of the above principles, the proposed dwelling would use a combination of them all resulting in a dwelling which is significantly innovative and sustainable in its construction…
…It is considered that the proposed dwelling is innovative in its design and represents the highest standards of architecture. Furthermore, the proposal would be highly sustainable in its construction meeting level 6 of the Code for Sustainable Homes.
The proposal is therefore considered to comply with paragraph 55 of the NPPF.” Broadland Planning Committee Report 14/08/13
“The design rationale, focused on the historic drainage channels and field patterns of the site is considered to be an innovative approach, which creates and informs a narrative and perceptual experience of the dwelling, the site, and the surroundings. Given this narrative and design rationale, the proposal is therefore considered to be innovative and of an outstanding standard of design and architecture…
…Careful thought has gone into the design of this building – and one of the primary drivers is the relationship between the built form and the landscape – both as it exists now and how the field functioned in its past. The process of design review panels has assisted in arriving at a solution which sits in the landscape and relates sympathetically to its immediate surroundings. The proposed design is innovative, distinctive and makes use of existing landform to ensure the profile is less prominent in the landscape. The one storey, partially buried, building is nestled in a low point of the field facing West. The alignments of the walls deliberately follow the ancient drainage routes on the field and forms part of the design methodology used in its evolution – in a direct attempt to be relate to the existing landform and landscape history. The materials used are locally prominent and the associated green roofs and planting to the front of the property will contribute positively to the biodiversity of the site (providing native species will be used) and will help incorporate the design into the landscape.
The effect of the proposal on the Landscape Character of the site will be of a low negative nature, whilst the visual impact will be positive. There will be a net biodiversity gain derived from the green roofs and additional planting. The proposals is considered to accord with HDPF policies 31, 32 and 33 and in part with Policy 26, and are broadly in line with the guidance set out in the Landscape Character Assessment for area F1 Pulburough, Chiltington and Thakeham Farmland.” Horsham DC Committee Report 21 November 2017
“The design proposal here draws on the form of a traditional black barn, a rural building type that has ancient origins, the oldest examples of which survive from the 13th century. In terms of their East Anglian form – rectangular, timber-framed, timber clad and thatched – very little changed in the character of barns over succeeding centuries other than in respect of their size and materials. Larger barns and brick built barns were indicators of status and the wealth of the farm holding. Basically, barns as simple (black) boxes have been part of the pattern and language of the countryside for a very long time. The design proposal draws on this typology and, without simply replicating it, subverts its form in response to the programmatic requirements of the client brief and the site-specific context. The result is a building of innovative form and appearance which is clearly derived from a local typology such that it will take its place in the landscape comfortably whilst extending the modern concept of the ‘living barn’. Whereas barns have historically been used for the storage of crops and livestock (the site was used in the 19th century as a poultry farm) today many that are redundant are used successfully for dwellings and have become, in effect, a modern hybrid typology to which this new scheme relates.”
This proposal shows that the applicant, external bodies and the Council have worked effectively in partnership. Suffolk Coastal District Council is rightly proud of its proactive role in promoting the highest quality of innovative design. A significant element of the success of this project has been based in the pre-application process., Suffolk Coastal has approved paragraph 55 proposals steadily on their own outstanding merit over the past four years. Despite an active facilitating role ,many other schemes have fallen short of compliance with paragraph 55 at either the pre-application or planning application stage. In this case the applicants have demonstrated excellent cooperation with officers and The Design Review Panel to achieve a S55 compliant scheme which is an exemplary submission, both in terms of working practice, supporting documentation and in the high quality of architecture. This proposal would be a very welcome addition to the existing high quality standard of domestic architecture across the district and it is therefore recommended for approval. “Suffolk Coastal DC Planning Committee report.
3.1 In terms of the effect of the proposal on the character and appearance of the area, it is noted that the site is secluded in nature, being largely screened by established hedging and trees. The dwelling would be set well back within the site and partially screened by existing woodland and additional planting and would not intrude visually into the surrounding open landscape. The proposed dwelling and garage building would be located to the southwest of the site between the woodland to the south and the north, which allows the proposal a combination of shelter and discreetness.
3.2 Also due to the single storey nature of the dwelling in conjunction with the gradient of the site the dwelling is partially concealed within the site and therefore only glimpses of the dwelling would be afforded to the surrounding area. The proposed materials also complement the surrounding rural character. Combining the use of a heavy weight flint gabion facade and a diverse green roof helps to project the illusion that the building is growing out of the landscape and further helps to assimilate the dwelling into its rural surroundings.
3.3 The proposal is arranged around an orderly central courtyard designed to bring natural light into all corners of the plan, whilst maximising the potential of natural cross-ventilation. The northern edge and approach to the building sits low in the landscape, allowing approaching visitors to catch a glimpse up and over the green roof to the surrounding landscape.
3.4 The proposal as highlighted above includes a green roof, which would accommodate a variety of local flora and fauna to assimilate the proposal into the surrounding landscape, whilst promoting biodiversity, reducing rain water run-off, and helping to buffer radiant heat and keeping the building cool in the summer. The proposal also includes a landscaping scheme, which would enhance the appearance of the site and add to the biodiversity of the locality.
3.5 Taking these considerations into account, it is concluded that the proposal would accord with national planning policy and is considered to be innovative in terms of design and of a high standard of architecture. Whilst the proposal would conflict with Policy CP14, this policy is not entirely consistent with the NPPF for the reasons set out above, and can therefore be afforded limited weight. Consequently the proposal is considered to be acceptable in principle.
The concept of solar heating and conservation has been around for a long time; other solar house designs have been around even longer. There is little that is innovative about its principles. But the PHCC is innovative in terms of its design and help raise standards of design in general. There are few examples of such designs being built and whilst public access to the house is not envisaged, passers-by would be able to view the house and it might help inspire others to raise design standards.
The house will be an exemplar zero carbon building, achieving zero net emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) from all energy use in the home and it is predicted to surpass level 6 in the Codes for Sustainable Homes (CfSH). This far exceeds current Building Regulations standards, however the gap in Building Regulations is narrowing towards zero carbon requirements. A condition is recommended to secure one of the most sustainable forms of development within Warrington.
The collaborative holistic approach undertaken to this design is exemplar and ought to set a new benchmark for Warrington. It is considered the proposal in particularly represents a truly outstanding design through its construction techniques which far exceed the normal standards. Externally, the architecture may split opinion, but changes have been made to set the dwelling behind the established building line and enhance the sites setting through the replacement of the former orchard.
Studio Bark Response to this section:
A common theme in these projects has been that research-led approaches have been important in drawing out a particular characteristic of the site, or local area, and then finding a contextually sensitive design approach to respond with. Where the authority has shown interest, resources have then been applied in a focused manner toward enhancing that particular concept or direction.
Early projects were able to benefit from the fact that there had not been many paragraph 55 applications. That does not mean that these early design responses had any less merit, only that the principle of innovation or of being outstanding were easier to prove. As an example, in the case of the practice’s earliest, the major justification in terms of innovation was to demonstrate compliance with the ‘Code 6’ energy standard. This in itself was inherently difficult and the success was therefore a great challenge, but later projects were unable to rely on this same tactic alone.
In our experience, there is no certainty that any particular innovation or design for a particular site will be successful, but what we have demonstrated from the approvals so far, is that that the above approach appears to offer a good likelihood of success.
What didn’t work
We have taken only five paragraph 55 proposals projects to Stage 3 (full planning submission), and all five of our projects submitted to their respective authorities have been ultimately successful at committee, with no appeals to the planning inspectorate required. That said, there have been a number of projects along the way where the project has not been so successful and the client has decided not to proceed for one reason or another.
The case for ending a project is much easier to argue at the beginning, where less time and energy has been expended. Conversely we see an increasing commitment from clients the further the project progresses.
At stage 0, projects are most commonly ended as a result of either: a) a negative assessment of the land following a site visit, or a change of heart / priority on the part of the client. The client will have only committed to 1 day’s worth of work at this stage, or up to 6 days if an initial package of work has been commissioned, so it is of relatively low financial risk to proceed to this stage.
At stage 1 or 2, following further development work and pre-application advice from the local authority, we have had only 4 projects where the client has decided not to proceed to stage 3. We have included excerpts from the local authority responses along with context, but in the interests of client privacy, we have made the projects and the planning authority names anonymous.
Pre-application feedback (Stage 1)
“…The key issue in reaching a decision as to the acceptability of such a scheme is therefore whether the new dwelling as proposed would be appropriate to its location, significantly enhancing its immediate settings and be truly outstanding or innovative, reflecting highest standards in architecture and sensitive to the characteristics of the local area.
Although the supporting documentation details the use of local materials and high standards of craftsmanship, details of any specific innovative features have not been provided, with the information primarily relying on the contemporary design itself.
The proposal is for a large scale new build dwelling made up of a number of separate buildings to the rear of existing properties on greenfield land. The majority of the site is within Flood Zones 2 and 3 and acts as a floodplain . As it stands the proposed is not seeking to replace a particular dwelling or seeking to convert an existing building and for the reasons given in the consultee responses, it is difficult to argue that development here will significantly enhance its immediate surroundings and setting – a key requirement of paragraph 55.”
Studio Bark Response:
This was a particularly challenging site in a sensitive location, with local concerns around flooding and a local authority that had already met its local land supply target. By the time of the pre-application response Discussions with the local authority were not able to overcome some key differences in opinion over the nature of paragraph 55. We have had initial negative responses of a similar level in some of our successful projects, however we have been able to regroup, listen to the advice and ultimately move forward with a positive change of tack.
In this particular instance the client was unwilling to invest further resources, and so the project was concluded at stage 1.
Pre-application feedback (Stage 1)
While the village location is not a designated settlement for development it is considered to be sustainable for limited development as already discussed. Therefore potentially the argument for the development to be an exception house on the grounds of Paragraph 55 of the NPPF is questionable. Paragraph 55 requires an innovative design of exceptional quality. Such a building would have to be truly outstanding or innovative, raising standards of design generally, reflecting the highest quality of architecture, significantly enhancing its immediate setting, and being sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area. This is an extremely high threshold of acceptability, in addition to the sensitive landscape location of the site.
It was highlighted at the site meeting that an alternative to concrete would be used that uses 95% recycled materials and if viable would be an innovative design solution that is not currently in the market. However it was also noted that this approach has not been undertaken on any development of this scale. I am therefore at present not convinced that the design or innovation is sufficient at present to meet with Paragraph 55. If an application was to come forward (notwithstanding the advice provided) which relied on the use of this innovative material we would require much greater reassurance that the building could be constructed using this method. If it could not, then the building would just be of modern design and not innovative and therefore not a Paragraph 55 dwelling.
The challenges of providing a Paragraph 55 dwelling in this sensitive landscape location (AONB and Conservation Area) are high. The scale of development and associated landscape and access works would represent harm to the character and appearance of the AONB and more specifically the Conservation Area. Given the sensitive location of the site it is unlikely that a dwelling could be accommodated within this elevated section of the site. In addition the associated works to the access, drive and parking would significantly and adversely impact the character and appearance of the Conservation Area.
If you wish to proceed with an application for a Paragraph 55 dwelling against officer advice, please note that we would seek the advice of the South West Design Review panel in relation to the paragraph 55 criteria. Their fees would be payable by the applicant.
Studio Bark Response:
On the ground of innovation, the strategy chosen was a novel new process for reducing the cement content of concrete by 95%, however it was still at prototype stage. The double edged sword of innovation is naturally that of uncertainty, so we felt that this particular comment would be easy to overcome with further documentation.
The biggest difficulty for this site was the sensitivity of location and the fact that the local authority was unsure about validity of pursuing a paragraph 55 approach here. Comments angled at the suitability of the site siting of the dwelling require more justification than design responses alone may be able to answer. In this instance, after careful thought, the client decided that the risk involved in pursuing the design further was too great.
Pre-application feedback (Stage 1)
I have researched whether an application under paragraph 55 would not require the application of a sequential test, but could find no relevant case law to indication that this is the case.
Paragraph 100 of the NPPF states that inappropriate development in areas at risk of flooding should be avoided by directing development away from areas at highest risk, but where development is necessary, making it safe without increasing flood risk elsewhere. It requires the application of the Sequential Test and if necessary the application of the Exception Test. Para 101 goes on to state that the aim of the Sequential Test is to steer new development to areas with the lowest probability of flooding. Development should not be permitted if there are reasonably available sites appropriate for the proposed development in areas with a lower probability of flooding.
It is my view as a planning officer that an application under paragraph 55 would not remove the need for the application of the Sequential Test. It would be up to the applicant to demonstrate that there is no site within the District reasonable available for the proposed development within an area of lower risk i.e. in zone 1 or 2, or to make a case that there are no ‘appropriate’ alternative sites for this dwelling in an area with a lower probability of flooding.
Studio Bark Response:
This has been the clearest of all of our responses in terms, by suggesting that the site itself was unsuitable, owing to flooding risk. Although there were flood-mitigation measures in place for this particular design, the officer’s view was that Paragraph 55 as an exception policy was not strong enough to overturn the flooding risk. The fact that the planner ‘could find no relevant case law’ is not in itself a confirmation that the view was correct, and indeed it would be an interesting test of the policy if the case were to go thus far. That said, fighting a planning court case is a significant undertaking, and takes a particular resolve. In this instance the client chose not to pursue this route, and our internal opinion is that this was a sensible strategy.
Pre-application feedback (Stage 2) incorporating DRP feedback
Whilst the design presented is certainly interesting it reflects aspects of other building design, including ones you yourself have presented, and the sustainable technologies/design details proposed to date have not been demonstrated to be truly innovative in their nature. The use of timber (and other materials) from the site as the main source of construction materials would be inherently sustainable but is not in itself considered truly innovative…
…It is understood that you are at an early conceptual stage of development and therefore that the design and proposals, should your client wish to proceed, would no doubt evolve further and look to address the matters raised. You may wish to separately carry out pre-application consultation with other stakeholders including the AONB partnership who may be able to assist you in terms of local building traditions etc.
In conclusion, whilst it is recognised that the design is still evolving for this site it is not considered, that to date, the tests of para. 55 have been met. The challenge set by the choice of site and the existing designations relating to it has also been picked up on by DRP who have raised the matter of access and management of construction traffic and how this in itself will have further impact.
Studio Bark Response:
This response was not at all discouraging, and the comments were framed in a context of ‘tasks to complete’ rather than ‘reasons for likely failure’. Our assessment of this scheme was that it was well supported for this stage of design, both by the design review panel and by the officer, and that the team would only need to find solutions to a small number of concerns in order to gain approval at Stage 3. Unfortunately in this instance the client, as a result of financial and time commitments outside of the project context, felt unable to commit further resources. This was a great shame, as of all of the concluded projects concluded early, we feel that this had the greatest probability of success.