Regulatory Planning for Economic Development in the Countryside

By Murray, Michael; Houston, David et al. | The Town Planning Review, March 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Regulatory Planning for Economic Development in the Countryside


Murray, Michael, Houston, David, Keaveney, Karen, McKay, Stephen, Murtagh, Brendan, The Town Planning Review


This article examines the interaction between development control and economic development in the countryside within the context of contemporary debates on shifts in the agricultural sector from productivism to multi-functionality. Using planning application decisions from the case of Northern Ireland for the period 1994-95 to 2005-06, together with insights from high-level key informants with planning, economic development and environmental management expertise, the article critiques a perception that regulatory planning is in line with rural development ambitions to foster a multi-functional countryside. While the quantitative data indicate a high approval rate for economic development projects, the qualitative evidence points to limitations within the policy content and operational practices of the planning system. The article argues that regulatory planning must engage more deeply with rural development objectives.

The relationship between the regulatory role of the town and country planning system of the UK and the agricultural sector can be traced back to the 1940s to a time when farming was perceived as the natural custodian of the countryside and thus was largely exempted from the provisions of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Out of the earlier 1942 Scott Report, there emerged a perspective that protecting the well-being of rural communities and enhancing countryside amenity could be achieved by retaining existing farmland in productive use. Similarly, Scott had argued the need for 'a heavy burden of proof on those who want to use any agricultural land for building development' (Sheail, 1997). A national imperative at that time was an expansive agriculture that could raise food output. New productive systems, structural measures related to early retirement, farm amalgamation and training, along with tax and fiscal instruments facilitated considerable productivity gains over subsequent decades (Gilg, 1996).

The contemporary setting for agriculture is very different. On the one hand, environment and landscape are central features of a new rural policy preference. On the other hand, it could be argued that regulatory planning has failed to come to terms with the dramatic changes that have affected rural economies in general and the agriculture sector in particular over the interim. In short, it could be hypothesised that there is a marked disconnection between the current realities of multi-functional rural and farm-based working, and the policies applied within the planning system. This article examines the complexities of these interactions within the UK context by taking Northern Ireland as a case study. The overall argument, with wider significance, is that rural planning (with its long-standing emphasis on landscape protection) and rural development (with an interest in economic diversification) should be more closely linked in facilitating and managing countryside change.

The article is structured into five sections. First, we locate regulatory planning for the countryside within the wider debate on productivism and multi-functionality in order to provide a conceptual context for our empirical analysis. Northern Ireland is then taken as our case study, as it affords useful insights into rural challenges that are shared with other parts of the UK, where the planning policy base for rural areas is heavily borrowed from British practice, and where there is comparable and contested concern regarding future trajectories for the management of rural change. However, what distinguishes rural Northern Ireland from many parts of Great Britain is its dispersed settlement pattern within the countryside as denoted by strong localityoriented living, working, and sense of belonging attributes (Murray et al., 2009). Thus, secondly, we outline key dimensions of the rural development and planning policy frameworks for economic diversification projects within the region; thirdly, we present a quantitative analysis of planning application decisions related to economic development in the countryside based on the Northern Ireland case for the period 1994/95- 2005/06; fourthly, a complementary qualitative investigation explores deeper issues around planning policy content and operational performance that draws on a series of structured interviews with individuals holding planning, economic development or environmental management expertise; and fifthly, the article concludes with a discussion about the difficult relationship between regulatory planning control and rural development. …

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