Idyllic way of life at risk in Exmoor National Park planning row
Simon and Nicky Gibbard’s lifestyle would make many people envious.
Home is a cosy, well-insulated building heated by a woodburner. The picture windows look out on an unspoiled vista of fields and trees. They are out of sight and sound of the nearest main road.
They have milk from their own Jersey cow (which Simon passes through a separator to extract the cream). They grow their own vegetables.
And the smallholding from where they dispatch day-old chicks to all parts of the country is the culmination of an ambition they have cherished all their married life.
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But at the moment precious resources which should be ploughed in to expanding the business are having to be diverted into the pockets of planning consultants.
Because in the eyes of Exmoor National Park planners the Gibbards are living in entirely the wrong place.
Earlier this year their bid to obtain planning permission for their converted barn home was rejected. But now the couple are pinning their hopes on being able to persuade a government inspector that they should be allowed to live on site when their appeal against the decision comes up for hearing later in the year.
Smallcombe Farm lies up a vertiginous track off the main road between Timberscombe and Wheddon Cross, near Minehead. Tens of thousands of drivers pass the spot every year without even being aware of the farm’s existence – unless they happen to see the sign tucked discreetly away.
But even though the Gibbards have been given consent to put up barns and other buildings on the site, the national park authority says the barn where they live is an unsightly intrusion – even though it can only be seen from a nearby bridleway.
Planners say the business could easily be run remotely and the couple have no need to live on the site, as they claim.
But, said Nicky, that would make it impossible to maintain the frequent nightly checks that are needed on the emerging chicks and would leave the entire enterprise vulnerable to attack by the many foxes and badgers in the area.
“Since we bought the place in 2005 it has been one long battle to explain to people that we need to live here,” she said.
“The national park authority has given us permission for other buildings and uses: if they had no intention of allowing us to live here eventually they could at least have said so. They have known from the first day we bought the place that we intended to build the farm here: they have been leading us on.
“We have already lost £25,000 as a result of trying to run the place remotely. It doesn’t work, even if you only live a mile away. A hatchery is not something you can leave to run itself: everything has to be checked two or three times during the night. Neither can you leave free-range chickens. We have lost so many to foxes in the past, but since we’ve been living here we haven’t had a single one go.”
The latest blow to the Gibbards’ ambition came at the national park planning committee’s January meeting which, after objections from the Exmoor Society and other organisations, voted against giving them retrospective consent for their home.
But, say the couple, the national park is very good at saying one thing while doing another.
“They claim to be very pro-business, and Exmoor certainly needs new businesses,” said Nicky.
“But they clearly aren’t very pro-farming business. We are at the stage now, seven years down the line, where we should be expanding and starting to employ people instead of having to devote so much time and money on fighting to stay here.
“This is a model for sustainable farming and a fabulous business for Exmoor: we don’t get a Single Farm Payment but even without that we are projected to make £50,000 a year from the business – and there aren’t many Exmoor farms that can do that on 40 acres.
“But it’s something we can only achieve if we live on site.”
An Exmoor National Park Authority spokesman said it was against building new homes in open countryside and permission was normally only given in special circumstances such as the essential need for a rural worker to live permanently at or near their place of work in.
She said the Gibbards had not shown the farm could not be managed in other ways without the need for a new house on the site.
“Therefore it is not essential for a worker to live at this site. As such it is considered that the proposal does not meet the special circumstances for allowing a dwelling in the countryside.”