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Government to slam door on great country houses

The government is set to close a planning loophole that has triggered the recent surge in new country houses. A revision of PPG7 will delete a key paragraph that allows for a large house to be built on open countryside where the architecture is of 'outstanding' quality.

Critics of the move have warned it could spell the end of the 400-year tradition of the great English country house.

The clause, within the policy guidance for the countryside, was drawn up in 1997 under the Conservatives. The paragraph states: 'An isolated house in the countryside may also be exceptionally justified if it is clearly of the highest quality, is truly outstanding in terms of architecture and landscape design.'

There have now been about 50 planning applications for large country houses off the back of PPG7, with an increasing number of modern designs emerging in recent months.

Ushida Findlay Architects, Shedkm and James Gorst Architects have all designed schemes, and Stanton Williams Architects has just won planning permission for its Poulton Gorse House (see page 8).

But the Labour government has been waiting for an opportunity to drop the clause - a policy it set out in 2001 in a Commons question by former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions minister Beverley Hughes. A spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister told the AJ this week that this remained the government's position, which would be reflected in the revised document PPS7, due out in the summer.

Although the document was still being finalised, he said, it was 'not an unreasonable expectation' that paragraph 3.21 will be dropped. 'We don't want loopholes in the law, ' he said. 'We don't want to be in the position of having more housing in the countryside when we should be developing brownfield land.'

However, CABE, which has been providing advice for local authorities considering PPG 7 applications, expressed surprise about the move. Chair of CABE's design review committee Paul Finch said it was 'a great shame', as PPG 7 in its current form 'allowed for the possibility of very high-quality houses to be built across Britain'.

Architectural historian Neil Guy warned that the changes could bring to an end the 400year tradition of the English country house. 'Over 1,500 have been destroyed over the last 100 years, ' he said. 'There is plenty of scope for these to be replaced.

Alan Stanton agreed the great houses made a 'tremendous contribution to history'. He said: 'I don't see why you can't have a good country house and social housing. People are taking an ideological position instead of weighing the situation properly.'

And Robert Adam, who currently has six PPG 7 houses in his office, said the government was being spiteful. 'People lose the plot on this that it's about rich people getting to do what they want. In fact everybody will lose out. To arrest the building of new country houses for political dogma and curtail investment in the country is very short-sighted.'

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