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Local power in wind farm planning is step in the right direction

Today’s announcement by government that local people are to get a stronger voice over planning decisions on wind farms is an important step in the right direction.

We have long advocated the need for a robust planning system that values the opinions of local people and gives them a say on what type of developments they want and need for their own communities. And this move by government towards engaging and empowering communities in decisions around renewable technology is really important.

View along the Whitehaven coast, Cumbria towards wind turbines ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

View along the Whitehaven coast, Cumbria towards wind turbines ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

The National Trust believes in the need to grow cleaner, greener energy to tackle the damaging effects of fossil fuels on our environment and wellbeing. That is why we have pledged to generate 50 per cent of our energy from renewables, including biomass, solar and hydro technologies, by 2020. It is also why it is important that this move does not signal a major backward step in the Government’s commitment to expanding renewables. Fewer renewables to be replaced by any anticipated bonanza in fracked shale gas would be a serious blow to the Coalition’s low carbon credibility and do nothing to help us all tackle climate change.

We also believe there is a place for well-sited, well-designed wind technology as part of a mix of renewable energy schemes, but that this should not be at any cost.

So we welcome the communities and local government minister Eric Pickles’ statement today, in which he says: “Meeting our energy goals should not be used to justify the wrong development in the wrong location.” And also his strong support for clear policies in local plans which will ensure that “impacts from wind farms developments, including cumulative landscape and visual impact, are addressed satisfactorily.”

As a leading conservation organisation, we have a duty to protect beautiful places for ever, for everyone and believe that great care needs to be taken in the siting of any renewable technology, wind included, to ensure that the special character of our most sensitive places and landscapes is not compromised.

Long overdue is a national debate and then clear plan – organised by regions – which aims to set out where large scale renewable technologies could be located. This would take so much of the understandable heat out of the current situation where scattergun and speculative approaches to, for example, wind farm development are creating incessant pressures on some local landscape and their communities. The best development proposals engage local people early and help them take part proactively in the what, where and how of any major interventions.

While today’s announcement has prompted concerns that higher incentives from wind farm developers to communities might lead to distorted planning decisions – and it is important that the government ensures this does not happen – there is a need to recognise the benefits that can be gained from energy providers working with local people on developing models for sharing the dividends of local, community renewables.

We support the principle of local energy tariffs, where communities which host schemes can benefit from access to cleaner, less costly heat and power. Our new energy partner, Good Energy, is already a pioneer in this approach, and we are working with them in exploring how our new hydro schemes, for example at Hafod y Llan in Snowdonia, might embrace this concept of local, mutual advantage.

By Patrick Begg, Rural Enterprises Director


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NPPF Part 2 – Brownfield first approach to planning is being eroded

 New research published today by the National Trust and the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) suggests that the Government’s assurances of building on brownfield sites first is not backed up by reality on the ground.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph today (Wednesday 27 March) the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles states: “We are making the most of every single square inch of brownfield land.” 

Yet research carried out by the LGIU points to a dramatically different picture on the ground with developers arguing that it’s not economically viable to develop brownfield sites for new housing and pushing for more greenfield sites to meet housing targets.

The National Trust is surprised by the Communities Secretary’s comments as we are aware of cases – such as in Salford – where the Council’s ambitions for brownfield have been over-ridden in favour of 350 houses on a greenfield site – excluding 10,300 houses which are on brownfield from the Local Plan.

Peter Nixon, Director of Conservation at the National Trust, said: “We are very concerned that the principal of “brownfield first” is being eroded as the new plans emerge.

Our research suggests a growing number of greenfield sites are being prioritised for development with developers arguing that brownfield sites – many of which already have planning permission for construction – are now unprofitable to build on.

We think this shift in priorities is bad news for our cities, bad for our towns, bad for our villages and bad for our countryside.”


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NPPF fails to deliver planning for people – Part 1

Research published today by the National Trust and the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) suggests that the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is failing to give local people a genuine say in shaping the future of their communities, falling short of the Government’s own localism ambitions. 

Published by Government a year ago today, after a National Trust campaign to secure vital protections for land, the NPPF was intended to stream-line the planning process while promoting sustainable development and putting local communities at the heart of the planning system. 

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Local authorities were given just 12 months to update and adopt their Local Plans, which set out where development should take place in a local area, in consultation with local communities.  Any authorities who fail to have an adopted Local Plan in place by today will be subject to the ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ in the NPPF – local authorities will be required to approve development proposals ‘where the development plan is absent, silent or relevant policies are out of date’. 

Today’s research suggests that over half (53%) of local authorities surveyed will miss today’s deadline, while more than a quarter (26%) estimate that it will take another year or more to adopt their Local Plans, leaving communities the length and breadth of England at risk of speculative development.  Three-fifths (60%) of local authorities surveyed also said they don’t have the resources necessary to meet future planning workloads. 

The research has also found that the NPPF is leading to the centralisation, rather than localisation, of the planning system – three-fifths (60%) of local authorities surveyed felt that the introduction of the NPPF and Neighbourhood Plans had not helped them produce Local Plans that reflect local communities’ concerns and priorities, while the evidence suggests that development – particularly housing – is being prioritised over the concerns of local people once Plans reach Public Examination stage. 

Finally, the research suggests that the development of brownfield land first, before greenfield land, is being compromised as local authorities are forced to exclude many brownfield sites that already have planning permission from their five-year housing supplies because they are now being deemed as economically unviable to develop, leaving the authorities with little choice but to propose greenfield sites instead. 

We are therefore calling for the implementation of two practical solutions that could help give people a stronger voice in the planning system, as well as deliver sustainable development: an extension of the deadline for local authorities to adopt their Local Plans; and a more sustainable set of criteria to assess the viability of sites that already have planning permission, giving equal weight to social and environmental criteria as well as economic.


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What’s the link between good housing and good wind farm developments? …Good planning

The image of a wind turbine’s swirling blades divides opinions across our nation. From the hilltops of Cumbria to the most southern tip of the Cornish coast, everyone has a personal view on wind energy and an impression in their mind of what that technology represents.

The National Trust’s position is unwaveringly clear on wind – we believe wind energy is a positive move towards reducing our carbon footprint but it should be built in the right places and at the right scale for the landscape.

Wind turbines in motion dissect a landscape of green fields in Anglesey, North Wales

Wind turbines in motion dissect green fields in Anglesey, North Wales

Knowing the Trust’s passion for cleaner, greener energy, it may seem at odds that we choose to oppose wind farms. But we believe strongly in careful planning to protect any special places from inappropriate development. Just as each housing proposal must benefit the needs and character of the surrounding area, so must each wind application be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Once an incongruous development is built on land or a landscape that holds historic significance or natural beauty, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to restore. As the National Trust’s policy is to protect special places forever, for everyone, we feel duty-bound to speak out when we feel these places are threatened.

This is why the National Trust has so fiercely opposed four wind turbines that would have overshadowed the beautiful and historic Lyveden New Bield in Northamptonshire and is calling for councils to have an extra year to engage with their communities and agree on a local development plan for their areas.

The North Front of Lyveden New Bield, Peterborough, Northamptonshire, in the evening light

The North Front of Lyveden New Bield, Northamptonshire

Shielding our special places

The best protection that we can give to our precious land and heritage is held in the planning system.

Under the Government’s new National Planning Policy Framework, if a local council and community want to have the final say on the design and location for wind turbines – or any development – they need to have an adopted Local Plan.

Why would a large energy company invest more money in the layout, design and materials used in a wind farm if the planning was not in place to demand that?

And if a council has not planned for where infrastructure should go in the local area to meet demand and Government targets, this means they have not protected where they should not go.

Why have wind turbines at all?

Climate change and changing weather patterns are threats that the National Trust takes seriously. The most important thing the Trust can do in terms of planning is to ensure we do not make decisions that make matters worse.

If planned well, wind turbines can have a positive impact on our landscape by replacing fossil fuels for clean energy and therefore contributing to reducing our carbon footprint.

Where are the places that the National Trust does approve of for wind farms?

This is a difficult question and it is not for the National Trust to identify specific sites for development. We want to help local communities to take the lead on what type of renewables schemes would benefit their area and where these should be built. Ideally being owned by the communities themselves.

In Germany, 20% of all energy is now renewable and as much is either community-led or community-owned. From cities like Freiburg to small Black Forest villages the reality is that local people have chosen to buy-in to renewables and in ways that work for them. 

This bottom-up approach must be right and as such we have recently joined a coalition of organisations  committed to working together to empower and support real community-led energy.

Find out more about the National Trust’s renewables schemes here.


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The National Trust calls on the government to give councils an extra year to consult local communities on local plans.

New research has revealed that meeting a 12 month deadline for adopting a Local Plan has been unfeasible for potentially more than half of local authorities.

And with the March 27 deadline fast approaching there is a growing fear that many areas across England without a robust planning scheme in place will become vulnerable to developers looking to cash in on planning loopholes.

When the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was published last spring, a successful National Trust campaign helped ensure that local communities were given a voice on land use and protecting treasured areas through their council’s Local Plan.

However, research completed earlier this month by the National Trust and the Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) found that 51 per cent of local planning authorities will not meet the March deadline. And around 27 per cent said it would take them more than a year from now for their local plan to be adopted. This reflects official information from the Planning Inspectorate that just under half (48 per cent) of local councils in England have had their local plan adopted already.

Without an adopted plan in place, local councils run the risk of being subject to “presumption in favour of sustainable development” as part of the NPPF – or in the more direct and colourful words of the planning minister, Nick Boles, that they will “expose themselves to speculative development”. This means that developers could gain an easy “yes” on the 55 per cent of England without national protection – such as land outside of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and designated green belts.

This is why the National Trust today has called on the government to extend the deadline by one year, to March 27 2014, to give all local communities an opportunity to shape their Local Plan and their area for future generations.

“Speculative development is the polar opposite of good planning,” said Peter Nixon, the National Trust’s Director of Conservation.

“The success of the National Planning Policy Framework depends entirely on local plans being adopted. This is why we suggested that councils should be given a further year to adopt their plans.

“A perfect storm of ever tighter council budgets, the loss of regional strategies and just 12 months to adopt new plans has been too much for many councils to bear.”

The message is one supported by planning minister Nick Boles himself. In his own speeches, Mr Boles has referred to planning “…through which villages, parishes and other neighbourhoods can take control of their future and decide for themselves how and where development should take place” as a revolutionary step forward.

Malcolm Sharp, president of the Planning Officers Society agreed that the original one year’s transition period was not long enough to complete the local plan process.

“Planning authorities are being asked to do local plans, support neighbourhoods, put the community infrastructure levy in place and negotiate infrastructure delivery,” he said. “It’s a big ask on them to keep all the balls in the air.”


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An interview with Karin Taylor

Earlier this month I interviewed Karin Taylor, Head of Land Use Planning for the National Trust. We began the discussion by looking back at 2012 and what the key moments were for the Trust.

The main success for the National Trust last year was the changes the Government made to the final National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). After being disappointed with the first draft we decided to launch an intense public campaign, lobbying government to readdress key areas (please read an earlier blog for more details about the Planning 4 People campaign). Effective advocacy work led to a revised version that we and other organisations were much happier with and has subsequently led to the Government and civil servants being much more willing to consult with National Trust on important planning policies . I will add however that I am still concerned over the reduction and consequent simplification of all Planning Policy Statements (PPS) and Planning Policy Guidance notes (PPG) from over 20 separate documents to just 59 pages in the final document.

The second key moment in 2012 was the announcement of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill, providing a good indication of how juxtaposed the opinions of planners and politicians are. Whilst planners in the National Trust and similar organisations see planning as a tool to help economic growth, the publication of the bill clearly insinuates that it is planning policies which are holding back economic growth in the UK. This bill is worrying as Government seem to think that by increasing permitted development rights the economy will flourish; meanwhile the impacts on the environment and the encroachment from development on people’s special places are being overlooked. The development of the Bill is something that we will keep a close eye on over the year.

And now, for 2013 what do you see will be the big issues for planning?

I am going to be keeping a close watch on the role of nature conservation during the planning process. Local councils are currently under resourced and there is talk of watering down planning requirements in terms of protected species in an attempt to streamline and reduce the costs of the planning process. Currently homeowners wanting to build must undertake surveys if there is the likelihood that any protected or rare species (for instance bats) that would be threatened if building works were to go ahead. These surveys can be costly and admittedly the process could be made more efficient, but although a review of the current planning processes is needed, we must make sure the baby is not thrown out with the bath water and that nature conservation is not sacrificed in return for a swifter and cheaper planning process.

This need to streamline processes against the backdrop of lack of resources is another thing I think will become more of an issue this year. Government cuts have had a devastating impact at a local level and specialists such as conservation officers, landscape planners; architects (the list goes on!) have all been squeezed out of their local authorities. Unfortunately, this lack of experience and resource within the planning sector will result in a quality problem and I fear poor decision making on important issues may ensue.

This April sees the deadline by which all local plans should have been adopted, but with the length of time the plan preparation takes and the confusion caused by the removal of regional plans I think many neighbourhoods will not be able to meet these deadlines and there will be quite a bit of hype around it. Regional plans were eradicated as part of the Governments ‘Red Tape Challenge’, but it was not thought through. Local plans are unable to proceed in some areas due to disagreements over housing between or within local authorities. Councils and local groups need to work together in order to create an effective local plan.

It does all seem like doom and gloom but we must remind ourselves that despite ongoing issues we still have one of the best planning systems in the world and that is something to be very proud of. We must always remember that there are two sides to every planning story and ‘The Planners’ on BBC2 offers an honest and balanced view of the impacts of planning on all parties.

You can find out more about the BBC2 series ‘The Planners’ at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00tw844#


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Wenlock Edge Quarries: Our vision for the future

Jo Dimitri is a Project Manager at the National Trust. Since joining the Trust in August 2011, she has been focussing on a project exploring the exciting potential of Wenlock Edge Quarries for conservation and getting more people outdoors, as well as being involved with initiatives at Benthall Hall and Attingham Park in Shropshire.

The National Trust is committed both to protecting special places and to enabling people to get outdoors and closer to nature. It’s for these reasons that we’re taking the unusual step of blogging against a planning application that we believe threatens a very precious part of the Shropshire countryside.

Wenlock Edge is an iconic feature of the Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The Trust owns, manages and provides public access to 700 acres of the limestone escarpment including land adjoining Lea Quarry, one of the Wenlock Edge quarries which form part of the stunning landscape of the Edge.

Wenlock Edge and Lea Quarries North and South, Shropshire ©Dave Bagnall Photography

Wenlock Edge and Lea Quarries North and South, Shropshire ©Dave Bagnall Photography

Wenlock Edge quarries are special in so many ways – globally known for their geology and exceptionally important ecologically, the disused quarries have started to develop a spectacular flora and fauna that make the Lea North quarry and parts of another site (Lilleshall quarry) Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The quarries also hold significant historic and cultural importance. The local area has a rich quarrying heritage and AE Houseman, Mary Webb and Ralph Vaughn Williams have connections with Wenlock Edge. The position of the quarries holds a link to the existing countryside network, through a complex of bridleways, footpaths and an old railway line.

In 2009 the quarry owners approached us about acquiring the site when they stopped working there. Since then we’ve been working closely with the local community and other interested parties, including the Shropshire Hills AONB Partnership and a range of conservation and access organisations, to form a vision for the future of Wenlock Edge quarries with restoration, conservation and recreation at its heart. Bringing together  the views of over 500 people, the plans also showed the potential for economic development and job creation.

Over the summer, a planning application by a renewable energy company, called Edge Renewables, was submitted to Shropshire Council seeking retrospective permission for its wood chip production facility, including changing the use of former quarry buildings, retention of new buildings (erected without planning consent), and storage of timber at the old Lea North quarry. The National Trust – ordinarily supportive of renewable energy – in this instance felt we needed to oppose industrial development in this sensitive site. In recent weeks, the planning process has become even more critical to safeguarding its future because Edge Renewables has now bought Lea Quarry North.

We believe that the current operation is an inappropriate use of land that should have a protected status, in line with the government’s new planning framework. The previous exploitation of the land for its limestone was temporary, and the original planning permission for quarrying included important conditions for the land to be returned to nature. In this context, it is difficult to think of the quarry as truly Brownfield land, especially now that flower rich grassland and European protected species have started to reclaim the site and its spectacular (SSSI) geology is attracting people from around the world for study and enjoyment. The land needs to be properly reinstated, or we risk not only this beautiful place, but undermining the future of other quarries that have not yet been restored but where restoration is part of the planning approval.

Renewable energy should be encouraged, but not be at any cost. We must think for the long term about how we care for our special places and strike a sustainable balance between access, environmental and economic considerations. There are far less special places to store and process logs (the Trust has even suggested some of its own land), which will not undermine the integrity of our countryside or the huge public benefits it brings. From a purely economic perspective there is also a great case to make for the countryside. According to the Shropshire Hills AONB Partnership, tourism in Shropshire generates around £457m a year from around nine million visits and supports around 8,786 full time job equivalents. The AONB accounts for over 5 million of those visits.

Concern is shared by many in the local community. Hundreds of local people have already spoken out against this application – 180 people have written to the council to object to the application and there is a petition with over 3500 signatures.

Why not join in the public debate on Edge Renewables’ planning application? You can sign the pledge and the petition, find out more about our vision for Wenlock Edge and comment online, quoting the application reference 12/03034/MAW.


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A Spotlight on: Ascot, Sunninghill and Sunningdale

It’s important for a community to have a shared vision when it comes to planning – but equally, this vision needs to be achievable, with steps and actions set out and acted upon in broad agreement. Neighbourhood planning can be the vehicle for a community’s achievement of its vision.

The Ascot, Sunninghill and Sunningdale Neighbourhood Plan is currently in progress, having begun before the publication of the NPPF and the Localism Act, in late 2010. This makes it an interesting example of how neighbourhood planning can develop in the absence of government guidelines. The latest step taken by the Steering Group is a vision document that has been consulted on with the community. A clear vision was set out in six statements, covering character, wildlife, housing, carbon emissions, the economy and transport.

More than a vision

This sort of ‘vision statement’ isn’t unusual in neighbourhood planning, even at these early stages – we’ve already highlighted the great, shared vision in the Woolley neighbourhood plan here on this blog. What’s really positive about the Ascot, Sunninghill and Sunningdale vision document is the way they’ve taken input from the community about what they want to see in their community, and given a suggested approach to achieving this. For example, the community’s desire for safer roads and pavements that are more attractive to pedestrians and cyclists is mirrored by suggestions of widened pavements and making new developments contingent on rights of way, with pedestrian and cycle paths.

It’s details like this that make a neighbourhood plan just that – a plan. Saying what you want your community to look like in the future is all very well, but without saying what needs to happen or refrain from happening, it’s unlikely that the vision will become a reality.

The detail achieved in this vision document can perhaps be attributed to the Steering Group’s organisational structure. Four topic groups have been formed to help identify key issues, consult with residents, business and stakeholders and to draft sections of the plan. The groups cover housing and the environment; community; economy and transport and infrastructure. Each topic group is headed by a leader, who also sits on the Steering Group, and has a number of local people as members. Recently, members from different topic groups have come together to address issues relating to specific sites and develop options for them. It seems that all those contributing to the Ascot, Sunninghill and Sunningdale plan have their collective vision in mind, but are also able to come up with the practical measures required to achieve it.

This practical aspect can also be found in the map contained within the vision document. That the plan already has a strong spatial element is hugely encouraging. The Steering Group has identified areas with opportunities for enhancement, areas for preservation and green spaces that provide important gaps between villages. There’s been thought about where change can occur, and what’s important to keep and improve upon.

A neighbourhood plan is not just about what the community wants to be and look like in the future, it’s also about what needs to happen to get there. The work already done at Ascot, Sunninghill and Sunningdale bode well for a strong and positive neighbourhood plan.

The group is currently holding a consultation specifically on Ascot High Street and looks to submit the plan to the borough council and hold a local referendum in late 2012/early 2013. Want to find out more? Why not take a look at the vision document and results summary, or the website for this neighbourhood plan?

Have you written a neighbourhood plan? Or do you want to? Get in touch and let us know about your experiences by commenting below. You can join the conversation with us about planning on Twitter (@nationaltrust) using the #planning4ppl hashtag.

Blog by Ellen Reaich, External Affairs Assistant


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Brandy Island needs saving from development – an early test for NPPF

We’re backing a campaign to oppose the development of a marina at one of the most tranquil and unspoilt stretches of the River Thames.

The idyllic setting of Brandy Island, near the village of Buscot in Oxfordshire on the River Thames National Trail, is hugely popular with walkers and local people who visit the area in their thousands to enjoy its peace and tranquillity, and the chance to glimpse kingfishers, otters and other local wildlife.

But plans submitted to The Vale of White Horse District Council, for commercial development of a disused water plant on the island, threaten to destroy the peace and special timeless character of the area.

With the development of a boat hire business with facilities for storage, maintenance and repair, local campaigners are worried that the proposals will lead to increased noise, traffic and change forever the landscape and tranquillity of this site – undermining the reason why the area is popular.

The proposals will test the Government’s pledge to protect the open countryside and the interests of local communities when it published the controversial new National Planning Policy Framework earlier this year.

“The area around Brandy Island is a special place that is loved by thousands of people who go there for its unique, tranquil setting,” said Richard Henderson, the National Trust’s general manager for Oxfordshire who is working closely with the local community on the campaign.

“The deadline for objections is looming fast and we urge anyone who loves this place and wants to support the campaign to make their views known through the formal channels.

“Details of how to do this are on our website.

“We support new development where it’s appropriate for the local area but in this case the proposals threaten what make this place special, and we are reflecting the views of many local stake-holders in strongly opposing the scheme.”

We’ve looked after village of Buscot since 1956 so people can continue to enjoy its special timeless character and the surrounding countryside.

Here are the reasons why we are objecting to the proposals:

Countryside Protection

This development would have an impact of the character of the local area which is recognised by the Local Authority as “an area of high landscape value”.   It would detract from the unspoilt beauty of Buscot Old Parsonage which is a Grade II* listed protected historic building.  This site is surrounded by open undeveloped countryside and we believe that the habitat should be conserved and enhanced by returning the whole site to a conservation area.

 

Traffic

Traffic will rise to an unacceptable level for local residents.  The access roads are very narrow and have no passing places.  Buscot Lock attracts visitors throughout the year.  It is a popular picnic spot in the summer as it is a safe and unspoilt place for people to enjoy.  The increased traffic will have adverse effect on the safety of the public and their quiet enjoyment of the site.

The increased traffic will add to the existing pressure on the main road through the village and increase parking problems.  The T-junction with the main A417 is already considered to be dangerous and more traffic entering/exiting the village will only increase the risks.

 

Noise

The impact to residents both in the village and immediately adjacent to the site cannot be underestimated.  Local residents will be immediately affected by the noise of boat owners with power tools, radios and machinery, as will all those who currently enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the area.

Comment on the proposals by visiting our website and you can join the conversation with us on Twitter (@nationaltrust) using the #savebuscot hashtag.

 

 

UPDATE: DEADLINE EXTENDED - the deadline for the consultation has now been extended to 22 June.


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Striking a Visual Balance in Planning

Editor’s Note: Despite the vast attention paid to planning since the publication of the draft NPPF last summer, it remains difficult to form a visual picture of what good planning looks like in practice.

For most people, it’s not until developments have been built that their visual impact and appropriateness to their settings becomes apparent. This is where the planning system plays its part – in mediating the interests of developers, economies, communities and their local environments. It acts before plans have been set in concrete.

This doesn’t mean a dictatorial planning system is required – quite the opposite – what is picturesque in one context may be out of place in another.

Ben Cowell, our Deputy Director of External Affairs, has helped visualise good planning by giving historical context to picturesque planning in a recent post on his blog, Palimpsest.

Picturesque Planning

“Harriet Atkinson’s new book The Festival of Britain: A Land and its People (IB Taurus) revisits the celebrations of 1951, exploring the various ways in which the Festival served as a reimagination of Britain’s geography and landscape.

The book’s front cover reproduces Eric Fraser’s Verdant Isle, in which Abram Games’s Festival emblem hovers, Skylon-like, over the nation, pinpointing somewhere in the heart of the midlands.  While the precise coordinates of the emblem’s landing point are unspecified, the image carries connotations of that other famous artistic elision of geography and patriotism, the Ditchley portrait of Elizabeth I, where the monarch’s toe points to Oxfordshire. 

By recalibrating the national centre of gravity away fromLondon, the image also reminds us that the Festival of Britain was always intended to be much more than its main showroom at the South Bank. As well as the architecture and events of the capital, there were exhibitions inGlasgow and Belfast, a travelling show carried on lorries toManchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Nottingham, and cultural programming across a great many other regional cities.

The Festival, as the current exhibition on ‘British Design 1948 to 2012’ at the V&A also observes, was therefore much more than merely a metropolitan affair. It was nothing less than a bold and optimistic vision of the future of the entire country and its landscape, built on a sensitive appreciation of the past.

Those involved in planning and building the Festival, among them Patrick Abercrombie, Hugh Casson and Gordon Cullen, chose not to import an alien modernism but explicitly harked back to earlier ideas of the Picturesque to ensure that their designs respected the genius loci or ‘spirit of place’.

The picturesque in 1951

 Atkinson reminds us that this ‘new Picturesque’ was a deliberate evocation of 18th-century principles laid out by, among others, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight. While Price and Knight had essayed their aversion to the sweeping vistas and identikit forms of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s parklands, their own vision of the picturesque demanded attention to the local and the particular, as well as the painterly qualities of natural landscapes.

Uvedale Price

Richard Payne Price

By the 1920s and 30s, influential writers on architecture and landscape, among them Christopher Hussey and Nikolaus Pevsner, were consciously revisiting such Georgian visionaries in an attempt to reassert the value of sensitive design in the process of laying out landscapes. Snubbing their immediate Victorian and Edwardian forebears, these writers looked to the 18th-century as the golden age of British design, and hence reinterpreted the Picturesque for post-war British urban renewal.  

Above all, the emphasis was on sensitive appreciation of landscape in all its deeply layered complexity. The landscaping and design of the South Bank Centre was carried out with attention to geology, topology, archaeology and natural history. The construction process was itself regarded as an archaeological exercise, and Jacquetta Hawkes was employed to curate the displays in the People of Britain Pavilion. (Her classic, A Land, the subject of a recent article by Robert Macfarlane, was written while she worked on the 1951 Festival. It is shortly to be republished.)

Meanwhile, the Exhibition of Live Architecture was located at Poplar in east London, as a demonstration of how Picturesque principles of planning were being put into effect on the Lansbury estate. Celebrations of the new towns that were being constructed after the 1946 Act drew attention to the way old buildings were being incorporated into new designs. As Atkinson notes, ‘All emphasized continuity between the historic past and new developments’ (p.179), just as the new Picturesque proponents on the Architectural Review had called in the 1940s for bombed-out ruins to be reincorporated as public monuments.

The optimists of 1951 hoped that the Picturesque eye would help to reconcile modernity with the landscape, teaching us (as Barbara Colvin suggested) to see beauty in ‘windmills and certain transmission towers’.  

Some of these visions of the future may now seem hopelessly old fashioned. It is somewhat surprising to us these days to find Pevsner identifying Harlow Town Centre as the epitome of ‘Picturesque Principles applied to urban conditions’. Clearly, sixty years of planning disasters have taken their toll. All too often, the past has been razed without proper consideration. The utopian dreams that informed the layout of so many new housing estates and indeed wholesale urban settlements have been shown to be just that – dreams, little taking account of the realities of people’s emotional response to place.

Picturesque Harlow

But might we yet reincorporate a sense of the Picturesque into our modern-day planning? The National Planning Policy Framework remains a resolutely unPicturesque statement, drawing as it does on so many abstract concepts and assertions (starting from that most anti-Picturesque of notions, sustainable development). Yet the emphasis on the primacy of the local is a fundamentally Picturesque idea.

Local plans that start from the genius loci or ‘spirit of place’, and which assert the importance of retaining local colour and character even while providing for new homes and businesses, may yet manage to retain the Picturesque delight in place, character, and the infinitive nuances of landscape.”

Anything to add? Please feel free to comment and share your concerns below and you can join the conversation with us about planning on Twitter (@nationaltrust) using the #planning4ppl hashtag.

Ben Cowell, Deputy Director of External Affairs, from his blog Palimpsest.

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