Clarkson has “done more for farmers in one series of Clarkson’s Farm than Countryfile achieved in 30 years.” This according to the distinguished farmer and Author James Rebanks after the first series of Clarkson’s farm back in 2021.
Like most of the viewers of Clarkson’s Farm, I know nothing about farming. I had no idea of the level of hardships faced by farmers across this country. Excuse the pun, but I had the wool covering my eyes.
As Rebanks stated, the first series of the programme championed farmers across the country, but the second series championed people who have had to face the horrors of the UK planning system.
In eight episodes, Jeremy Clarkson showed just why the planning system in this country is not fit for purpose and why it needs reform. A system that lets the ambition of UK growth down and Clarkson’s programme shows it lets down struggling people who are just trying to save their business. If the planning system can’t support these types of people, who can it help?
In this series, Clarkson tries to ‘diversify’ his farm to build a new restaurant to complement his and other local farmers’ businesses by enabling them to sell produce there. An admirable idea, and something that would be extremely popular with local farmers and communities who want a positive future for British farming. Not a cash cow, but a business that helps sustain another.
Clarkson’s plans would have benefitted his own farm, other local farmers and increased the area’s tourism. One would have thought that building a restaurant on their own land with significant economic benefit would have seen instant support from the local authority. But no, in this case, he wasn’t allowed to reap what he had sown. In an all too familiar situation, the planning system is more than meets the sty.
The series showed that rather than helping a group of local farmers in desperate need of further revenue streams, the councillors on West Oxfordshire District Council’s (WODC) Planning Committee felt that Clarkson’s restaurant would have harmed the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Now whilst this argument may have planning merit, it is largely farmers that care for AONBs, something that Clarkson pointed out in the series. Without them, would AONBs be what they are? In my opinion, its udder nonsense.
Clarkson’s application was refused, and in a statement released by West Oxfordshire District Council, they said ‘The Council gave the advice to try and solve the issues in a constructive way but unfortunately, this advice was not followed.
We were left with no alternative but to enforce the breaches in planning law in the same way we believe residents would want us to deal with any unlawful development.’
In the Council’s own words, it was the planning law that allowed the group of councillors to enact their power onto the local farming industry. When clear night skies are given preferential treatment over one of the UK’s most historical manufacturing sectors, it is clear the system is unsustainable.
It’s worth noting here that for all of Clarkson’s efforts, the local community were against his plans and this probably heavily swayed the councillors. Without a proper engagement approach and strategy, an application like we saw on Clarkson’s Farm was doomed from the start of the planning process. This being said, you could engage the feathers off a chicken, but ultimately councillors have the final say on whether an application goes through. The two things were not in isolation here.
In 2022, the UK government announced new planning reforms to make it easier to convert disused farm buildings into residential properties, including in National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
As Clarkson’s programme showed, although this is welcome and will help, the new legislation does not go anywhere near far enough.
Brexit has made the farming industry much more of an unknown quantity but if the government want to make a success of our exit from the EU and the farming industry, they need to let farmers use their land for the benefit of themselves and local people.
At a time of great uncertainty for farming, farmers should be able to diversify their income on their own land. Planning permissions should be less strict and more fluid for sectors that really need the government’s and their local authority’s support.