Participants at the AJ's Great Country House debate last Wednesday concluded overwhelmingly that the 'country house clause' should be saved. The lively discussion at the RIBA's Portland Place headquarters explored the issues behind the government's proposal to scrap the clause, which allows for the building of an isolated house on open countryside where the design is of outstanding quality.
CABE deputy chairman Paul Finch proposed the motion to retain the clause, with new RIBA president George Ferguson seconding. Taking the opposite corner were the Campaign to Protect Rural England's (CPRE) director of policy Neil Sinden and architectural writer and critic Jeremy Melvin.
An audience discussion followed, with contributors including Keith Williams, Robert Adam and Tim Drewitt, with a final vote on the issue producing 85 per cent in favour of the motion with only five per cent against.
Finch provided the opening arguments, blaming the government's opposition to the clause on 'chippy class envy'. The true reason for its abolition stems from Labour's 'ambivalent attitude to privilege', he argued. This hypocrisy showed itself in the intention to forbid country houses as part of a policy that 'housing should not reinforce social distinction', while sanctioning the reflection of social distinction through large cars and private schools.
The CPRE's Neil Sindon, who has been helping advise the ODPM on its revised countryside guidance, opened against the motion. He said the CPRE was 'fundamentally opposed' to the clause, which was inserted into the guidance by conservative John Gummer in his last days as environment minister. Gummer, who had been due to open the debate, was unable to attend, due to business in the House of Commons.
'Incongruous with the need for affordable housing in rural areas, ' was how Sindon described the clause, adding that planning policies should be designed 'to deal with this most pressing problem' while consistently discouraging building on greenfield land.
Ferguson's arguments included the suggestion that, as one of the very few pieces of government legislation that refers to the quality of design, it should not only be supported but extended.
Melvin proposed that the English country house was an outmoded social form that should be consigned to history. Interventions from the audience included one from Keith Williams, who argued that the country house continued to reflect cultural progress and provide innovative solutions, one of the most recent examples being Future Systems' private house in Wales for Bob Marshall-Andrews.
To have your say, email ed. dorrell@construct. emap. com