Applying to building a new home in the countryside can be a long and daunting task. Anyone who has already undertaken a large project like this will appreciate how difficult it can be.

But if you have the passion, the time and importantly, the budget, it is a truly amazing way of creating a truly unique architect-designed home in a beautiful area.

As most people know, in the UK you cannot simply just build in the countryside, known as the greenbelt or an Area of Outstanding Beauty. However, there is an exemption to this which is the Paragraph 79 clause of the National Planning Policy Framework. This has previously been called Paragraph 55, until amendments were made in 2018.

Paragraph 79 allows for exceptional design in rural areas and Areas of Outstanding Beauty – but there are tough criteria to adhere to in terms of design, the landscape, ecology and the surrounding environment.

The property design must be outstanding, enhance the landscape and wider surroundings, and be sensitive to the wider characteristics of the local area.

But the council planning department isn’t going to just look at the architect’s plans for the house. They will be looking at the local ecology and what impact your project will have upon the ecology, during the build and after the build.

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Why is landscape and ecology so important to getting planning permission?

It is of utmost importance that the building process does not harm the surrounding landscape or ecology in any way. A landscape consultant will be commissioned, either by the architect or independently by the landowner, to create a detailed landscape and ecology survey of the property’s land and the wider area.

This will take in plants, trees, topography of the land, as well as animals and birds. The initial survey itself will take around half a day, with compiling the report another two to three days. The report should examine the existing flora and fauna, including any protected species.

The landscape and ecology reports will make a number of recommendations for the build process and for when the house is built to ensure that the process does not affect or damage the local ecology or landscape.

The landscape consultant’s role is to work closely with the architect and homeowner to ensure harmony between the manmade habitat and the natural habitat.

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Landscape and ecology report 

A typical landscape assessment could include the following illustrative material: aerial photographs; site context plan; topographical features plan; landscape character plan; extracts from the landscape character assessment and a site appraisal plan.

The final report would also include a pre-development ecology survey; habitat survey; tree species visual survey visual and soil testing survey.

It will include recommendations for the build process and how the build would likely to affect the environment and ecology. If any protected species are found in the local area, measures have to be put in place to protect them. These could include barn owls, certain species of bats, breeding birds, badgers, dormice and the great-crested newt, for example.

Landscape design 

The landscape design is the second part of the process, and will be led by the landscape report, the site itself and its ecology and environment.

From the initial appointment, a detailed client brief will also be ascertained to enable living spaces that contribute to our client’s lifestyle.

Extensive ecological and site research is used to assert positioning of the proposed house on the land and to make best use of the topography, site opportunities and constraints of the land based on the research.

We often ask our client to give their needs and wants up to a degree to allow a successful application at design review panel (required to achieve P79 status.)

Landscape design will centre around the native plants and trees found on the site, as well as local materials.

Planning process

A design review panel will assess the work and proposal with planning. This panel is typically made up of architects, consultants and planners who will critique the work and ensure it meets the most stringent criteria before the proposal goes before the local planning committee.

A successful P79 application is different to a standard planning application because the building and architecture are led by the site and its features. The landscape research and character assessment forms precedent over the whole self-build process.

The planning review meeting and subsequent planning committee will involve on-site models; 2D sketches, 3D sketches, as well as the ecology report and the landscape visual impact assessments.

Overall, I believe the Paragraph 79 framework is a positive device that forces house builders to achieve their “super house” status while benefiting the environment as one. The stringent criteria ensures that an extraordinary level of work goes into the design and ensuring it enhances, rather than damages the surrounding environment.

Michael John McGarr is lead designer and ecologist at WM DESIGN STUDIO which has achieved paragraph 79 status on previous projects and can advise self-builders, developers and architects on creating their homes in the countryside.