Yorkshire Dales landscapes are being threatened by the very group charged with its conservation, it has been claimed.
As the Friends of the Dales accused members of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority of failing to protect the area’s architecturally and historically important stone barns, the authority’s officers warned members they could be acting unlawfully.
But some members of the authority, who are either elected councillors or appointed by the Government, believe the biggest threat to the park is its declining population and providing affordable homes to ensure local families are not displaced from communities must be paramount.
While 81 conversions of the park’s 4,500 barns have received planning permission since planning rules were relaxed in 2015 to ease conversions of barns into housing for local people or into holiday lets, only one scheme has been refused by the authority.
Amid mounting concerns for the traditional features and in an unusual move, officers have told its 17-member planning committee that if it approves Wensleydale and Swaledale barn conversion schemes next week, the monitoring officer would have to report the committee’s “unlawful” actions to the full authority.
The warning follows members saying they were minded to approve the barn conversions near Hawes, Appersett and Reeth despite officers warning the schemes would have a “significant harmful impact” on the park.
Until recently, residential conversion of barns – most of which were built between the 16th and 19th centuries to enable cattle to be kept and fed with hay in the upland area over winter – had been confined to those within settlements.
After exempting national parks from relaxed rules for agricultural buildings conversion into homes in 2013, the Government told national parks to take a proactive approach to residential barn conversions in future.
In response, the Yorkshire Dales authority launched policies to allow barn conversions for residential use at suitable roadside locations and in other groups of buildings.
Members have said the barn conversion scheme near Hawes met the authority’s policies and was acceptable as it was sited within a community.
But officers said members appeared to have “misinterpreted” the authority’s policies as the barn was more than 200m from Hawes and that granting the scheme would leave the planning committee “in a position where it has difficulty in refusing other applications”.
Officers said the other barn schemes failed to meet other policies designed to meet the authority’s statutory first purpose – to conserve the national park.
Mark Corner, chairman of Friends of the Dales said the conservation charity was “acutely concerned at the significant harmful impact on the landscape and scenic beauty of the Dales” posed by the inappropriate conversion of traditional farm buildings since the planning rules were relaxed.
He said: “Worryingly now, applications are being approved which drive a coach and horses through these new rules.
“We sincerely hope that in this instance the authority members heed the advice of their own officers and legal counsel and reject the three applications coming before their planning meeting.
“It would seen reckless to ignore the advice they have received that to support the applications may be unlawful and, we would argue, would be very damaging to this place that many care so much about.”
Mr Corner said the charity appreciated authority members were trying to create affordable housing and sustain communities, but was instead “damaging what makes this area special”. He said most of the conversions did not provide affordable housing or boost communities as holiday accommodation.
Upper Dales councillor and planning committee member John Blackie said there was a “battle of wills” over the issue and the latest schemes would shape several young families futures.
He said: “I hope my fellow members will stand firm and let the Secretary of State decide whether the barn conversions are approved because the future of the communities depend on it.
“The housing crisis for young families in the Upper Dales is on hand.
“Only last month we sadly had to say goodbye to Arkengarthdale School after 360 years as next year there would only have been four pupils.”