A High Court judgement has backed a local planning authority's stance that a large-scale polytunnel installation on a farm in Surrey constitutes development and requires planning permission.
A soft-fruit grower failed to persuade Mr Justice Sullivan that the polytunnels – on Green Belt land within a designated area of great landscape value (AGLV) - represented agricultural use of land and did not need permission.
The farm can be seen from the nearby Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
The Hall Hunter Partnership, which owns Tuesley Farm, near Godalming, went to court after losing an appeal against an enforcement notice from Waverley Borough Council, upheld by a planning inspector, which had ordered the removal of polytunnels, windbreaks and caravans for up to 250 workers.
In making his decision, the planning inspector was clear he was looking at the circumstances of this individual case and that it would not mean that all applications for polytunnels would need to be considered for planning permission.
"This decision is based on local circumstances and doesn't set a national precedent. Farmers will continue to enjoy preferential treatment under the planning system," he said.
Countryside campaigners hailed the ruling as a victory for local democracy and a blow against what many see as the "industrialisation" of farming. However, farmers and fruit growers have warned that a £200m a year industry is threatened by the judgement.
Large-scale polytunnel installations have already caused controversy in other parts of England, notably in Gloucestershire, Kent, Herefordshire and Worcestershire.
Councillor Patrick Haveron, Waverely council's lead member for planning, said: "Waverley is the first council in the country to determine that such polytunnels are development and do require planning permission.
"It is essential that the council, as planning authority, works hard to balance the varying interests of agriculture with those of local residents and the impact on the landscape."
He added: "We have been aware throughout of the national interest in this case and it will be a useful case for planners elsewhere because it establishes that polytunnels of the type involved in this decision do require planning permission."
The Campaign to Protect Rural England welcomed the judgement as "a crucial victory for the planning system which will ensure that local democracy and national policy are properly taken into account when polytunnels are proposed on farmland, and in particular on nationally and locally designated landscapes."
22 December 2006