A special clause in planning policy allows homes of exceptional design to be built in rural areas. The National Planning Policy Framework outlined in Paragraph 55 has become a sign of hope to some, a red herring to the uninitiated, a badge of honour for architects, and a potential risk worth-taking (to the well-researched).
High Stakes Gamble
Get it right and possibly increase the land value ten-fold. Get it wrong and face huge LPA and consultants bills. But the prize could be a really cool new house, on a spectacular site, in gorgeous countryside. So what’s the problem, and why aren’t more people doing it? This Insight lists five things you need to know about this by Jamie Orme in a recent illustrated article in Homebuilding and Renovating.
Understanding the Clause
All planning decisions follow the policy wording and any old design will not pass muster. Paragraph 55 states that planning consent may be granted if the proposals represent ‘exceptional quality or innovative nature of the design’, meaning it must:
- Be truly outstanding or innovative, helping to raise the standards of design more generally in rural areas;
- Reflect the highest standards in architecture;
- Significantly enhance the immediate setting;
- Be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area.
Here the important word is ‘or’ (as in ‘exceptional quality or innovative nature of the design’.) It replaces the word ‘and’ previously used (PPS7). In theory this makes life a little easier for those looking to make an argument.
You MUST have the Right Site
Architect Richard Hawkes, known as ‘Mr Paragraph 55’ for his success rate (11 out of 11) designing houses to meet this clause, says.
“I do it less nowadays, but for a couple of years I would be spending a lot of time talking to prospective clients who really didn’t have a chance under Paragraph 55.
I could tell because of the site. Now I’m able to do a lot more research before visiting as to whether the site is right. When carrying out an initial assessment of a site’s suitability the design is almost irrelevant. Our experience shows that instilling a strong sense of place and integrating technologies which are specific to the site and the design that evolves from it are all critical.”
So, a site with a strong story is key. Richard refers anecdotally to sites he is working on at the moment. This includes one very exposed site where wind is the key defining factor, and so the site will make use of wind turbines and a design will be based around addressing the wind as a key issue. Put simply, the site is everything. §55 Planning Consultant Rob Hughes emphasises this, saying that, “Buying a bit of land in the middle of nowhere in the hope of it is usually not the best route”
Let your architect take you on a journey - with a Paragraph 55 approval as the destination, then forget it. Ceding control to a team of specialists is essential.
- “Clients must be prepared to compromise” says Kevin Brown of Sadler Brown Architecture who won approval on a home in Northumberland under this clause:
- “Not all clients are willing to accept the flexibility, ambition and financial implications”, says Planning consultant Rob Hughes.
- “Picky” about what he takes on, architect Richard Hawkers wants “…a feel for the site having the right ingredients, (and) just as importantly whether the clients are prepared to commit.”
- Remember - you’re not choosing them — they’re choosing you!
Ignore Rules & Other Schemes
According to Richard Hawkes §55 needs a fully bespoke solution:-
“There is no magic formula and one scheme cannot be used to help justify another. Each site and set of circumstances is unique …it is the angle each scheme is based on that is key.”
Tom Emerson of 6a Architects who won approval for a Cambridgeshire house agrees, saying:- “We intentionally didn’t look at the other schemes. If you are looking to other architects for a trick, it’s almost the worst thing you can do.”
Bite the Bullet & “Commit”
This is high-risk self-building. Having bought the plot you’ll be investing heavily - maybe £50,000-£100,000 - with no guarantee of success – and no refunds if you lose.
However, it is not just a gamble for the wealthy. While many such approvals tend to be in the Grand Designs mould – both in size and design ambition – there’s nothing in the policy that requires approved designs to cost a fortune to build.
Currently on site is architect Paul Testa’s new §55 180m2 home in South Yorkshire. He thinks that:- “…ultimately, this route is an expensive one. You have to demonstrate an exceptional and unique proposition which will, undoubtedly, require considerable design time”
“However, for me, it’s the huge risk of the planning process with chances of success much worse than 50/50 that will put off all but those with the design fee money to potentially lose. This inevitably lends itself to those with an already large budget to spend.”
Whatever your design, and whether you have a normal or §55 permit, the chances are that it will need some degree of technical expertise for it to be buildable. Conceptual designs, especially if produced to overcome some local planning objection, are likely to be more ‘buildable’, Building Regulation compliant, and cost effective if the technical structural aspects have been addressed as the design is worked up. Ideally a ‘team working’ approach is desirable and can have significant benefits, especially in the area of energy efficiency.