CPRE Herefordshire believes that large-scale, intensive polytunnel developments are damaging the countryside. We believe that the Wye Valley AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), in particular, should be protected from these intrusive structures, as contrary to the special landscape designation of these areas.
There are three large Polytunnel Growers in the Herefordshire part of the Wye Valley AONB. In this landscape, the masses of glistening plastic mar the views.
For a short winter period, out of the extended growing season, the polythene is removed but the hoops are often left in position. Apart from the damage to the views in the open countryside, there are other, serious, concerns:
- Water is used extensively, on a 'trickle irrigation' system; abstraction is often from rivers or streams, sometimes from boreholes.
- 'Run-off' both from the excess water, and from rainfall on the polytunnels, causes erosion and muddy conditions on local roads and footpaths, and could pollute waterways.
- Narrow country road verges are damaged by the heavy traffic collecting soft fruit for delivery to distant distribution centres,
- The seasonal labour force employed to harvest the soft fruit is accommodated in caravans, mobile homes or 'pods', with ancillary amenity buildings, and, in many cases, these have remained, year on year, without the benefit of planning permission.
- Transport used to move the labour force causes congestion on the narrow roads.
- CPRE Herefordshire has become increasingly concerned, as the soft fruit growers have increasingly expanded their polytunnel developments. Inevitably these large-scale, visually intrusive, 'Spanish' Polytunnels, with their infrastructures, are impacting on the beauty and tranquillity of the landscape. ('Spanish' polytunnels comprise interlocking tunnels, with lengths varying from 30 - 300 metres, of 6.7 metres in width and typically 3 metres high).
Uncertainty at Government and Local Government level about the application of planning law to polytunnels allowed a small number of very substantial polytunnel businesses to be established in Herefordshire without planning permission being required. This was clarified in and after 2006 by a series of High Court judgments and planning appeal inquiries. The result is that polytunnel developments beyond the very small scale now require planning permission.
Unfortunately Herefordshire Council has accepted arguments for established use in a number of sensitive sites, even within the Wye Valley AONB.
The Council has also seemed very ready to accept arguments that business should take precedence over policies to protect the landscape, again even in the Wye Valley and Malvern Hills AONBs. An important milestone was the adoption by Herefordshire Council of a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD), which was prepared to clarify, explain and supplement policies in the Herefordshire Unitary Development Policy (UDP). This SPD involved consultation with the growers and the community, and was adopted in December 2008. The voluntary Polytunnel Code of Practice was discontinued.
2007 Judicial Review
In June 2007, a Herefordshire Grower lodged a Judicial Review of the Council's decision on planning requirements for polytunnels. On 25th July 2007, the Communities and Local Government Chief Planner, in a letter to Local Authority Planning Officers, clarified the legal position.
He stressed that the definition of development would depend on the type and scale of the proposals including size, degree of permanence and physical attachment to the ground. Polytunnels do not comprise agricultural 'permitted development' as 'buildings' if they cover more than 465 sq. metres. Although more than one such 'building' could be erected, they would have to be at least 90 metres from each other.
In November 2007, in response to the Judicial Review challenge, Herefordshire Council decided to amend the Cabinet decision (made in March 2007) and a substitute recommendation was put forward for discussion at the Cabinet meeting held on 13th December 2007.
This recommendation deleted paragraphs (a) and (b) of the previous decision and substituted: (a) Whether or not planning permission is required for new or existing polytunnel developments within the County will be determined on the facts of each case and (b) Whether or not enforcement proceedings will also be determined on the facts of each case.Paragraphs (c) and (d) of the March decision stand. The recommendation was adopted.
2009 Judicial Review
In 2009 an action group challenged, at Judicial Review, Herefordshire Council's grant of planning permission for 54 hectares of rotating polytunnels, in 10-hectare blocks, for 10 years on a farm within the Wye Valley AONB. The action was successful and the Planning Permission was quashed. However the Council, with the National Farmers' Union as 'Intervener', appealed against the Judgement and, in 2011, won the Appeal and the Judgment was overturned.
Whilst the number of large-scale soft fruit growers who use polytunnels to extend the season in Herefordshire might be comparatively few, the effect upon the landscape is substantial.
Some of these large-scale growers are located in the following areas: Brierley, Harewood End, How Caple, Kings Caple, Ledbury, Marden, Staunton on Wye & Walford, (near Ross on Wye). The impact of polytunnels in these areas can be very significant and damaging to the landscape.
Some polytunnels contain 'raised beds', as at Marden where they are permanent. Strawberries are mainly grown in rotating polytunnels, but often raspberries and sometimes cherries are cultivated in non-rotating tunnels. A farmer in Walford has started raising late asparagus and early rhubarb in polytunnels, with others used to propagate blueberries.
In most cases these tunnels are sited on good agricultural land; in the case of those containing 'raised beds' the quality of the soil does not need to be a consideration and therefore these structures could be installed on unproductive land; the 'beds' are filled with a mixture of coir and peat and have elaborate watering and fertiliser feeding systems.
We look forward to more stringent regulation when planning permissions for polytunnels are sought, with SCALE and LOCATION as the main considerations in the democratic decision-making process.