Tim Wood wants to expand his farm. His neighbours have objected. It will smell, they claim. But, he says, what on earth do they expect in the countryside?

Simon Midgley on the new NIMBYs
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The Independent Online
A battle royal is being fought in the countryside. You might not know it but in parish councils, planning committees and farms up and down the country, the green-wellie brigade is putting the boot into the old guard black-wellie fraternity.

Urban folk who have fled the cities relatively recently are taking exception to the traditional smells, noise and muck of rural life. They want to sanitise the countryside.

The phenomenon is prevalent in the South-east, South-west and East Anglia, where thousands of townies have migrated.

The struggle between those brought up in the country and the incomers is exemplified by one Somerset farmer's battle. Tim Wood of Blackacre Farm is fighting to be allowed to start farming free-range chickens in the face of opposition from newcomers.

Mr Wood has been running a battery-hen farm in North Cheriton for 21 years. Three months ago, he applied to South Somerset District Council for planning permission to build a free-range hen building in adjacent South Cheriton for 9,000 free-range hens.

Objectors, who include commuters, second-home owners and those who have retired to the country, are unhappy because in the past they have had problems with Mr Wood's farm. There have been plagues of flies, unpleasant smells and chicken carcasses left in gardens by foxes.

They argue that if he is allowed to expand into free-range chickens this will only exacerbate the problems. Mr Wood says there are no smells and that this summer's plague of flies has nothing to do with his farm. Other villagers would agree. A majority of those locals whose families have lived in the countryside for generations do not object to his plans.

Robert Harding, a former cameramaker, of Melbury House, North Cheriton, is one of the 49 householders who do object. He retired to the village from Surrey seven years ago. Mr Harding says the problems started when Mr Wood extended one of his poultry houses last year. Now homes in North Cheriton, he says, are troubled by plagues of houseflies in the summer months - some 250 killed in the kitchen in one afternoon, for example - and, when the wind is from the south, by noxious smells.

Mr Wood says most of the opposition to his plans comes from North Cheriton, where the average home is worth at least pounds 200,000. Before the housing market crashed in the late Eighties, he adds, people would buy one of these houses, live there for two or three years, then sell up and make pounds 50,000 or pounds 100,000. Now, however, "those people have stopped moving and they look around them at anything that might have a detrimental effect on the value of that property. I am the victim of that.

"They are not Somerset born and bred. Real country people dismiss it as nonsense because they understand farming. Those people are not a problem."

John Shaw, South Somerset District Council's local planning manager, largely supports Mr Wood's views. He says that while there have been problems with flies and chicken carcasses in the past, these difficulties have largely been resolved. There are, he says, no technical objections to Mr Wood's plans and there is no proof that his farm is causing the flies. It is, after all, a hot summer.

Broadly speaking, Mr Shaw says, "the letters of support come from those who have lived in the countryside for generations, whereas those who are objecting are generally from people who have retired to the area or have second homes there. There is a difference between country living and urban living. The countryside is not a park.

"There is a balance to be struck between the countryside as a means of food production and people wishing to enjoy the countryside for its own sake. Where they clash, it's very difficult to reconcile the two."

William White, senior technical adviser to the National Farmers' Union south-east region, is aware of a growing number of complaints. The problem, he says, is caused by people moving into the countryside without understanding it. Moreover, he adds, the 1990 Environmental Health Act made it easier to object to farming activities than in the past. Environmental health officers now have greater powers and obligations.

"There is an increasing tendency for people moving into the countryside to expect peace and tranquillity, but they don't understand that farmers have a job to do and that at certain times of the year there can be pretty intensive activity outside normal hours. Smells and flies are part and parcel of livestock farming," he says.

"To a degree, it's down to intolerance - you have to see it to believe it. You only have to look at road rage. We did not have it 10 years ago. It's a symptom of modern life. Everybody is in a rush and doing more in less time. Tempers are generally frayed. Commuters go home to their nice houses in the countryside after a day in the office and they don't want to open their windows and hear the noise of large farm machinery, such as harvesters."

Brian McLaughlin, head of environmental land use at the NFU, says that we seem to be living in an age where farm animals are all right as long as they are "mute and constipated".

"There is a peace and tranquillity argument quite alien to country life which has always been dirty, smelly and noisy," he says.

The farming community is disturbed by the level of complaints, and they are right to think that they are increasing. A spokeswoman for the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health says that the number of complaints about odours, church bells and agricultural machinery noise has been rising over the past three years.

In 1991-92, there were 4,789 complaints about agricultural smells; but by 1992-93 this had risen to 4,916. In 1991-92 there were 84,198 complaints about noise in both rural and urban areas, but by 1992-93 this had risen to 111,515.

Recent cases involving farmers in the South-east have included: the owner of a hotel in the New Forest complaining that the mooing of newborn calves early in the morning was upsetting his guests; a caravan-site operator, again in the New Forest, objecting to a farmer spreading manure on his land either side of bank holidays; and a farmer fighting to be allowed to use his bird scarer at times of the day when seagulls eat and damage his watercress seedlings.

It is hard to see how the two sides are ever going to agree. The farmers think the incomers are a bunch of whingers, the incomers think the farmers are causing unnecessary noise and smell. Mr Harding, for example, who has been campaigning against the free-range egg farm, says he is no stranger to country ways.

The flies and smells were not here when we arrived, he says. "I am earthy enough not to object necessarily to the smell of manure but I do object to it all day long when it's in the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and every room in the house.

"We are not just being a little bit squeamish about an occasional whiff of poultry dung."

Earlier this week, Mr Wood formally heard that the planning committee has turned down his application - not on the grounds that a free-range poultry farm would cause noxious smells or lead to plagues of flies - but because a poultry shed in an open field would not conform with Somerset's overall structure plan. He and the NFU are now considering whether to appeal against the decision.