THE bubble has burst for Herefordshire's "plastic pastures". Acres of polytunnels put up across the county to serve a multi-million pound soft fruit industry will soon need planning permission - and those raised without it could be taken down.

Herefordshire Council's cabinet is ready to rubber-stamp new rules, backed by the High Court, that mean all polytunnel developments are put before planners.

The council's environmental scrutiny committee voted overwhelmingly in favour of the measure on Monday.

Now the new rules go to cabinet for final approval and the Hereford Times has heard they are going to get an easy ride there.

Before the landmark vote, Councillor Beris Williams warned the committee of an end to strawberry growing in the county if farmers were "forced into a corner".

But the committee's vice-chairman Councillor Sebastian Bowen said plenty of profit was made by developers building houses across the county, so farmers putting up polytunnels should be "held to the same standard".

Members heard that once the go-ahead was given, planning officers would check polytunnel sites to ensure they were within the rules. Those sites that didn't faced enforcement action, including removal.

Officers were now working on the criteria by which such action could be brought, although loopholes were already apparent.

The rules would not apply to polytunnel developments that already had planning permission, nor those that had been up for over four years. There were no plans to compensate anyone claiming to be blighted by polytunnels before the new rules took effect, the committee heard.

Polytunnels polarised rural communities across the county. Herefordshire Council was caught in the middle and often found itself under fire from both sides over what it should be doing about the tunnels.

At Monday's meeting, the council's legal practice manager Kevin O'Keefe said that a lack of clear guidance from government or the courts over polytunnels meant a voluntary code regulating development had been the best policy.

This changed with a High Court ruling in December which said polytunnels could be considered development and treated as such by the planning process, he said.

Councillor Marcelle Lloyd-Hayes told the committee that in the interim, polytunnels had got out of hand.

Speaking after the meeting, Edward Kelly, who took the county's Campaign for Polytunnel Control (CPC) nationwide said "heads should roll" over Herefordshire Council's handling of the issue.

Mr Kelly, from Hoarwithy, said the council failed to heed CPC advice four years ago that existing case law meant polytunnels needed planning consent and if no enforcement action was taken, growers would claim permanent rights.

"Herefordshire Council has failed to protect an area of outstanding natural beauty. There should be compensation for individuals and businesses adversely affected. Heads should roll," he said.