Protecting England’s special countryside – new NT report on AONBs

When our big campaign over Government planning reforms (the National Planning Policy Framework or NPPF) ended in 2013 we committed to keeping an eye on what the final reforms would mean in practice.

 

Since then we’ve been commissioning regular research reports on particular aspects of the how the planning system is working. The latest of these looks at what’s happening in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) in England.

A tree-framed view of the Wrekin beyond the Cheshire Vale from Wenlock Edge. Ancient mixed woodland and wild flowers are an important feature of the limestone escarpment of Wenlock Edge.

A tree-framed view of the Wrekin beyond the Cheshire Vale from Wenlock Edge.

 

The distinctive character and natural beauty of AONBs make them some of the most special and loved places in England – whether the ‘blue remembered hills’ of Shropshire depicted by A.E. Housman, the dramatic Cornish coasts and moorland or the varied landscapes and famously beautiful stone buildings of the Cotswolds.

Safeguarding AONBs from inappropriate development

 

The Government’s commitment to protect AONBs is clear, but our new research found some problems with how safeguards to prevent inappropriate development are being implemented in some places. The policy may be fine but it’s the practice where the problem lies.

And practice matters – the planning system is supposed to steer development towards where it’s most appropriate and can provide most value while protecting other areas for their landscape or wildlife.

But with local planning authorities losing staff and expertise and being pressured to make decisions in favour of development, that practice is sometimes falling below what it should be.

Working together to protect the countryside

 

We’ve suggested ways that practice can now be improved. We want to work with AONB partnerships and local councils to make sure that these landscapes continue to inspire us and fulfil the ambitions set out almost 60 years ago when the first AONB (the Gower Peninsula in South Wales) was created.

Ingrid Samuel, the Trust’s Historic Environment Director, says

“We have good policy in place to protect our wonderful AONBs, some of the most special and loved places in England. But our research suggests there can be a gap between policy and practice – and that’s something that needs addressing.

“AONBs are under strain from increasing development pressure, and local councils are between a rock and a hard place as their resources shrink. Reductions of 40% to planning and development management teams over the last five years will not help planning authorities to ensure quality development happens in the most suitable locations.

“We want to raise awareness of the protections that exist, and have proposed a series of tests to help with this. Sometimes the right thing to do is to direct development away from sensitive areas, but good quality development is possible in AONBs, and can contribute to conserving or even enhancing their special qualities if we get it right.“

Find out more by downloading our AONBs and development report here.

The full research report, carried out by Green Balance, is also available here.

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One thought on “Protecting England’s special countryside – new NT report on AONBs

  1. We should be grateful to the Trust for drawing attention to this problem. It is difficult to understand why the protection afforded by government becomes so ineffective when the landscape is under commercial pressure for development and is at the mercy of an unsympathetic planning authority.

    Dismayed by its refusal to comment on a number of applications which seemed to be against the spirit and letter of NPPF 115 and 116, two of us here in South Devon sought clarification of Natural England’s role and were granted a meeting with its local staff.

    E-mails from NE carry the suffix “We are here to secure a healthy natural environment for people to enjoy, where wildlife is protected and England’s traditional landscapes are safeguarded for future generations.”

    At least until very recently the NE website included a Planning and Development page which said “Natural England works in partnership with local government, developers, local communities and other key stakeholders to ensure every opportunity is taken through the planning processes to protect, and wherever possible enhance, the natural environment.” We asked its local officers whether that, together with NE’s particular role in relation to protected landscape, should include looking at cases in which an LPA was ignoring NPPF provisions on AONBs. They did not recognise the quotation and they made it clear that their job was only to process such requests for comment as were referred to them by LPAs – NE really had no role in influencing authorities which were failing in their duty to conserve protected landscape.

    Another, possibly newer, web page affirms NE’s duty to give advice on developments taking place in an AONB. But we are told that NE objects on average to only 1% of all cases on which it is consulted, so it seems clear that development is more important than protection.

    The current NE Standard ‘Responding to Development Management Consultations’ speaks of locally agreed protocols which detail NE’s working relationship with individual AONBs. Local officers tell us that in fact those protocols have been scrapped, just at the time when they could be used most helpfully.

    With no other authority to turn to, people are increasingly resorting to legal process such as judicial review. One of the many disadvantages of this is that it is necessarily retrospective, so it is likely to cause division and hurt which would have been avoided if NE and the LPA had guided the application correctly in the first place. Another is the expense, which usually means that it will only be feasible if personal property as well as the AONB is affected.

    Regrettably, we don’t get much help from a partnership committee which receives some £K170 of public money a year to conserve the AONB but has become so sensitive to the views of the LPAs and other local interests that it cannot really speak out in defence of the landscape. (It concerns us that if it follows the advice it is so freely being given to seek funding through alliances with other organisations its independence, and the respect in which it is held locally, will be even further eroded.)

    It is not suggested that the government should spend more on landscape protection, but rather that it should look closely at the agencies which are taking public funds for the conservation of AONBs, to find out whether it is getting value for our money. Perhaps there are better ways of ensuring that “England’s traditional landscapes are safeguarded for future generations”.

    We have written to Rory Stewart on these lines but have had no answer, despite him being reminded by our MP.

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