End of country house, say architects opposed to greenbelt proposals

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The Independent Online

The Government plans to drive a stake through the heart of modern country house culture by stopping grand new provincial homes from being built on greenbelt land.

In a move that has infuriated the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) and the Government's architecture watchdog, ministers say they will permit only affordable housing to be built on rural land.

Planning Policy Guideline 7 (PPG7), introduced by the Conservative government in early 1997, contains the "Gummer Clause", which allows "exceptional" new buildings within green belts if the architecture and landscaping is of a special quality. Since then, there have been 50 planning applications for country piles, only 10 of which have been allowed.

But the Government says theGummer Clause, named after the Conservative former minister, is inconsistent with its main countryside development priorities. It says big new houses are unsustainable and has launched a consultation exercise whose conclusion appears to have been decided. Beverley Hughes, a government planning spokeswoman, has told Parliament that the exceptions policy will be removed.

Robert Adam, one of Britain's best known "posh house" architects, said: "This is a very serious threat. This sounds politically quite good to the Government and so they're saying 'let's do it'. They don't want people with money to be able to build these houses. And conservationists believe they're a crime against humanity.

"To get rid of this clause so soon is like saying the cake's no good before it's even been eaten. John Gummer realised that a lot of country houses had been lost. We should be building them again. Planning officers say no to these things. There's a strong left-wing idea behind planning so that, somehow, private property belongs to the state."

More than 1,500 country houses have been lost in the past century through dereliction, the collapse of profitable farming and redevelopment after huge death-duty claims.

Paul Hyett, the president of Riba, said it was unclear whether the Government's review "springs from a fear of the countryside being swamped by such developments or from a cruder class envy. Neither reason has been borne out by the facts. Only a handful of applications have been passed since PPG7 came into force, and the rather feudal image of the country house is a terribly warped and out-of-date interpretation of a British institution. Are we never going to have another Blenheim or Hardwick Hall or Chequers?"

Paul Finch, of the Government's Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe), said the loss of the Gummer Clause in PPG7 would be "a great shame. As one of the very few items of planning law which actively demands outstanding architecture ... it should be protected by a government which has frequently expressed its commitment to quality design."

The architectural establishment is mounting a concerted challenge to the removal of the Gummer Clause, regarding its potential loss as yet another government failure to promote better architecture and planning. Part of this failure is because of the lack of architectural expertise within most local authorities.

There is no guarantee of excellence in the design of grand homes but architects such as Robert Adam and Quinlan Terry deliver inoffensive faux-classical extravaganzas. But far riskier architects such as Ushida Findlay have also entered the fray. Their proposed design for a country house in the Midlands resembles a vast concrete and glass octopus.

Mr Gummer deplored the move to ditch the main clause in PPG7. He said: "I believe that one of the great contributions to country and culture in Britain is the English country house. There were a number of sites around the country where parkland could still be recovered. It will be a pity if the planning system excluded the possibility of more great new country houses." Jan Vass, a spokesman for Lord Rooker, the minister for Housing and Planning, was unable to comment on how the Government had been able to make a generic policy connection between one-off "large dwellings" in green belts and ordinary housing estates.