A GOVERNMENT proposal to loosen planning restrictions for barn conversions could, on the face of it, undermine the very principle upon which our national parks were founded.

Given that the duty of the parks is to protect Britain’s most beautiful landscapes, it should be no surprise to hear influential people like the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority chairman Peter Charlesworth condemning the move as ‘potentially disastrous’.

He is right to speak out so forcefully. While the proposal to allow agricultural buildings to be used for homes and businesses without the need for full planning permission would appear to make sense, especially given that there is such a shortage of affordable houses in rural England, the potential consequences should be thought through very carefully.

Quite apart from potential harm to the landscape, it is obvious many remote field barns would be totally unsuitable for conversion, if only because of the lack of convenient services such as water, electricity and drainage.

But that becomes less of a persuasive argument when the farm buildings are close to or within existing settlements where utilities are nearer to hand.

As in most things, it is a question of balance. Allowing automatic approval for every application to convert a field barn would be a step too far in the wrong direction.

Yet there are persuasive arguments to allow some conversions to go ahead where opposition from local planning committees would be unreasonable.

These arguments have been put well enough by organisations such as the Country, Land and Business Association and Rural Futures, which rightly recognise the urgent need for more homes and employment opportunities in areas like the Lakes and the Dales.

Ultimately, all the views should be carefully considered by Ministers before they draw up the final planning legislation.

What is certain, however, is that retaining the planning status quo in our countryside, including national parks, is not an option.