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Building a stronger countryside with flexible planning

Will Tony Blair make architecture an election issue? Is Downing Street too preoccupied with the foot-andmouth crisis to consider pushing new topics onto the agenda? Or will it have the wit to combine the two: to draw an explicit link between planning policy and the economic prosperity of the countryside?

This week, Prince Charles has been widely criticised for his decision to allow a traditional barn on his estate to be turned into a luxury home. He is just one of a long list of people who have alienated locals by deciding to profit out of their redundant rural building stock, but has prompted a particularly vitriolic response because he appears to be contradicting his own views. Barns, he has previously argued, are 'as noble as cathedrals' but lose their character when they are converted with 'hideous pipes that pass for chimneys'. He has a point, as does the Council for the Protection of Rural England when it argues that barns - being industrial buildings - should ideally be converted to light industrial use.They do not lend themselves to domestic use: they have too few windows, and are too large for most people's needs.

(A major cause of resentment is that barn conversions tend to be the preserve of 'outsiders' since their size often renders them beyond the means of the local population - the prince's barn is to be a luxury fivebedroom home. ) But the Prince, like countless other landowners, has discovered that people want to live in the countryside.

And they set their sights on disused barns for the simple reason that it is virtually impossible to get planning permission for a characterful new-build house. Isn't it about time that the government encouraged the construction of one-off stand-alone rural homes? As well as increasing the supply of dwellings of an affordable size, it would allow our beleaguered farmers to make a much-needed profit out of excess land, and possibly to diversify into small-scale development at a time when additional revenue streams are desperately needed. It would also offer architects the opportunity to revive that much-neglected building type - the British rural house.

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