The popularity of Clarkson's Farm is hard to ignore. If you have not heard about it, it's a TV series about TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson's attempts to run his farm (Diddly Squat) in Oxfordshire.

It's brought back memories of All Creatures Great and Small (the original series!), which was favourite viewing in the Collar household in my childhood.

A recurring storyline is his conflicts with the local planning department about the various diversification projects on the farm, especially the farm shop and restaurant. If you want to know more, look at the information on the Council's planning portal – the hearing just held by a planning inspector (14th March) will no doubt feature in the next series .

It's tempting to fob it off as an entertainment programme, rather than an accurate portrayal. But that would be short-sighted, as feedback from those navigating their way through the planning system can provide useful practical insights.

What does Clarkson's Farm tell us about the planning system?

Just because you have a good idea doesn't mean it will get planning permission

This is something non-planners struggle with. Obviously opinions can vary about whether a development is acceptable, but the planning system has to do a better job at explaining why a specific proposal is not acceptable.

Often the difficulty is that a different location would be better, but people want to do something on their own land.

Creating expectations

The planning system supports farm diversification. However, if in practice that will only ever be at a small scale, is it giving farmers an expectation which won't be delivered? This is of course the well-known dilemma of broadly expressed policy versus detailed thresholds. The planning system does need to be wary of being seen to offer something with one hand, but take it away with the other.

Planning is not one-dimensional

The series is a chance to enjoy the beauty of the farm and surrounding countryside, which is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Protecting the attractiveness of the AONB does require development proposals to be weighed up carefully. However, the series illustrates the difficulties of accommodating the needs/ desires of those who rely on the area for their livelihoods. Bluntly, who is the AONB for?

It's about people

Kaleb and others on the farm are now stars, but the series also shows how much the planning system is about people. Pre-application consultation involved a myriad of council officers. Jeremy's public consultation event in the local hall was a memorable episode. The planning system may be about rules and policies, and studies and reports, but ultimately it is people (the councillors) who have to make the decision, weighing up all the various issues.

It's expensive

The series is a reminder that the number of studies required to accompany a planning application can seem excessive. In some circumstances, it can make it too expensive to apply for the planning permission. You don’t necessarily need to use a KC, but some studies need to be done by a technical expert.

Know the rules

There are lots of permitted development rights for farms (and other sectors), but check carefully for thresholds and pre-conditions, especially advance notification requirements (and remember there are different rules in Scotland). But sometimes the rules are unclear/ open to interpretation.

Hard cases make bad law

I was taught at University that hard cases make bad law. There is a danger of over-focusing on the Diddly Squat planning saga. The traffic and other impacts are probably linked to the popularity of the TV series, and much greater than would have been expected when granting planning permission for the farm shop.

The planning authority is an easy target

It's always easy to criticise the people running the system. The Council press release tries to give its side of the story.


Neil Collar