Industry relieved as Herefordshire Council gives approval for polytunnels on 50ha

The soft fruit industry is breathing a sigh of relief following a landmark decision allowing a Herefordshire grower to erect polytunnels on 50ha of land.

Owner George Leeds of Withers Fruit Farm, in Ledbury, has been granted permission to install tunnels on three agreed zones while following strict guidelines.

None of the polytunnels can be placed within 2m of a public right-of-way and none can be placed on the safeguarded route of the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire Canal, which crosses the farm.

A number of identified areas within the farm must be left free of polytunnels to limit the impact on the rural landscape and no poly-tunnel can rise more than 4.25m above ground level.

Leeds said: "The certainty this brings us allows us to plan our business for the future. If we had been asked to take polytunnels down it would have been the end of the business. Other growers should approach the relevant planning authorities, as asked to do. We were treated fairly - there was some negotiating but we are generally happy with the outcome."

Soft fruit grower and NFU West Midlands chairman Anthony Snell said the ruling will give Herefordshire growers renewed confidence in the future of their businesses. He told Grower: "George Leeds has gone about things in a thorough and professional way to get permission for polytunnels on his land. It's an example that will give growers and planners confidence in the future. All soft fruit growers in the county, ourselves included, are talking to planners with a view to full or partial planning permission."

The use of polytunnels on land in Herefordshire has come under opposition from the local residents and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), but the latest development has been met with approval from CPRE representatives and only four local householders raised concerns.

CPRE Ledbury group chairman Cyril Stone said: "The council's planning department has done a thorough job in working with the farm, resulting in a reasonable compromise."

Snell said growers were still waiting on the council's supplementary planning guidance document. As there is still no set criteria for planners to work from, there are concerns about how individual cases will be assessed.

He said: "As growers, we still maintain polytunnels are temporary structures - planning applications can take a long time and by the time permission is given for a certain area of land, its possible the polytunnels have been moved elsewhere on site.

"George Leeds has done the right thing in taking a whole-farm approach to the situation."

Leeds chose to seek planning permission for his tunnels despite other farmers holding off until publication of the supplementary planning guidance, which is due out in April - a move welcomed by the council's planning department.

Speaking to the Worcester Standard, planning officer Roland Close said: "George Leeds has led the way and this decision demonstrates that we can work with farmers to find solutions. We will now encourage all of the growers to submit planning applications."

Last year, Grower reported that Herefordshire Council dropped a controversial policy to subject existing polytunnels to planning permission in the face of a possible judicial review backed by the NFU and British Summer Fruits.

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