Ever wanted to build your own home in the middle of the countryside? Well, as any planning expert would tell you, you have almost no chance, except in special circumstances. It’s one of those special circumstances that is the subject of this article.
We’re referring to the bit of the National Planning Policy Framework outlined in Paragraph 55. To some it has become a sign of hope, but mainly a red herring (to the uninitiated), a badge of honour (for architects) and a potential risk worth-taking (to the well-researched).
It’s not difficult to see the appeal. Who wouldn’t want a really cool new house, on a spectacular site, in gorgeous countryside? Who wouldn’t want to be able to own a bit of land that is valued at perhaps £10,000-£40,000 and increase its value ten fold?
Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? So what’s the problem, and why aren’t more people doing it? Here are the five things you need to know before getting carried away.
Parsonage Barn: PAD Studio’s Paragraph 55 home in the South Downs reflects the contours and materials of the local landscape
1. Understand the Clause
Above all, it’s important to realise that any planning decisions follow the wording of the policy to the letter. Not just any old design will pass muster. Paragraph 55 states that planning consent may be granted if the proposals represent ‘exceptional quality or innovative nature of the design’. As such, the design should:
- Be truly outstanding or innovative, helping to raise the standards of design more generally in rural areas;
- Reflect the highest standards in architecture;
- Significantly enhance the immediate setting;
- Be sensitive to the defining characteristics of the local area.
What’s interesting from a historical context here is the use of the word ‘or’ (as in ‘exceptional quality or innovative nature of the design’.) It replaces the word ‘and’ on the antecedents of this policy in previous eras (PPS7). In theory this makes life a little easier for those looking to make an argument.
If you’re serious about building a house under Paragraph 55, you’ll know this wording inside out.
The Burrows: At 180m², Paul Testa Architecture’s Sheffield Paragraph 55 home proves size is not a factor in success
2. Get the Right Site
Architect Richard Hawkes has become known as ‘Mr Paragraph 55’ for his success rate (11 out of 11) when it comes to designing houses to meet this clause. His reputation has become something of a cross to bear, it seems.
“I do it less nowadays, but for a couple of years I would be spending a lot of time talking to prospective clients who really didn’t have a chance under Paragraph 55. I could tell because of the site. Now I’m able to do a lot more research before visiting as to whether the site is right. When carrying out an initial assessment of a site’s suitability the design is almost irrelevant. Our experience shows that instilling a strong sense of place and integrating technologies which are specific to the site and the design that evolves from it are all critical.”
So, a site with a strong story is key. Richard refers anecdotally to sites he is working on at the moment. This includes one very exposed site where wind is the key defining factor, and so the site will make use of wind turbines and a design will be based around addressing the wind as a key issue. Put simply, the site is everything.
Rob Hughes, the planning consultant who knows more about Paragraph 55 than pretty much anyone else, advises caution among those who see this as a chance to build an amazing home on any old cheap bit of woodland. “Buying a bit of land in the middle of nowhere in the hope of it is usually not the best route,” he says.
Headlands: Hawkes Architecture have gained consent for 11 Paragraph 55 homes — this is near Cheltenham
3. Be Hands Off
If you aren’t willing to let your architect take you on a journey with Paragraph 55 as the end goal, then forget it. Ceding control of your project to a team of specialists is the only realistic path to success.
- According to Kevin Brown, whose firm Sadler Brown Architecture won approval on a home in Northumberland under this clause: “Clients must be prepared to compromise.”
- Planning consultant Rob Hughes says that: “Not all clients are willing to accept the flexibility, ambition and financial implications.”
- Architect Richard Hawkes only maintains his 100 per cent success rate because he is “picky about what he takes on. You get a feel for the site having the right ingredients, but just as importantly whether the clients are prepared to commit.”
Rule three (a): you’re not choosing them — they’re choosing you.
Home on Sydnope Hill: Built from prefabricated straw panels harvested from the site, this Derbyshire Paragraph 55 home, designed by Lathams, is a true response to the site
4. Don’t Follow the Rules
“There is no magic formula and one scheme cannot be used to help justify another,” says Richard Hawkes. “Each site and set of circumstances is unique from any other and it is the angle each scheme is based on that is key.” The point here is that Paragraph 55 requires a fully bespoke solution.
Tom Emerson, from 6a architects (who have gained approval for a Cambridgeshire house), says: “We intentionally didn’t look at the other schemes. If you are looking to other architects for a trick, it’s almost the worst thing you can do.”
Brooks Barn: A Hawkes Architecture Paragraph 55 home in West Sussex
This is the high-risk end of self building (which, if you believe the hype, is high enough risk as it is). You’ll be buying a plot and investing a significant amount (most likely in the £50,000-£100,000 region) in a venture with no guarantee of success. And, if you don’t succeed, the money doesn’t get returned.
It’s tempting to think that this is only a pursuit for the wealthy, but that needn’t be the case. Although many of the designs for houses that have been approved under this policy tend to be in the Grand Designs mould – in terms of both size and design ambition – there’s nothing in the policy that requires approved designs to cost a fortune to build.
Architect Paul Testa gained planning permission under Paragraph 55 for a new (180m2) home in South Yorkshire which is currently on site. “I think, ultimately, this route is an expensive one. You have to demonstrate an exceptional and unique proposition which will, undoubtedly, require considerable design time,” he explains.
“However, for me, it’s the huge risk of the planning process with chances of success much worse than 50/50 that will put off all but those with the design fee money to potentially lose. This inevitably lends itself to those with an already large budget to spend.”