Last reviewed 9 November 2015

David Alexander examines a recent National Trust report recommending stronger planning safeguards for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).

Introduction

According to the National Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (NAAONB), there are 46 AONBs in Britain (33 in England, 4 in Wales, 1 straddling the English/Welsh border and 8 in Northern Ireland). They cover 18% of the countryside and are designated on the grounds of outstanding landscapes whose distinctive character and natural beauty must be protected in the national interest for everyone to enjoy.

AONBs are working landscapes with a flora, fauna, history and culture that has strongly influenced their character and appearance. Staff and volunteers working within AONBs seek to protect their special qualities through both management plans and the planning system. The aim is to bring a consistent approach to planning and development issues, within the wider family of protected landscapes across the country.

Role of planning

Planners working within AONBs must take account of several key components.

  • National AONB policy within both the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) and the National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG).

  • Relevant local and neighbourhood plans within AONB planning authorities.

  • Existing AONB management plans.

  • Ongoing dialogue between all interested and relevant parties.

  • Consultations with relevant AONB teams, especially over planning applications.

  • Significant applications covering residential development, large commercial and industrial development, minerals and waste management, and infrastructure proposals, including those with significant lighting or noise impacts on character and tranquillity.

National Trust Report

The National Trust has estimated there are more than 260 million visitors to AONBs and National Parks annually, who spend in excess of £6 billion. Development is supported where it follows locally agreed plans, since AONBs are living and working landscapes where local needs can be met so long as development is high quality and in appropriate locations.

However, in the light of Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) evidence that AONBs are under increased pressures from unplanned, inappropriate development, the National Trust commissioned Green Balance (www.greenbalance.co.uk) to examine case examples where significant development has been approved. The outcome found “some shortcomings in the way existing planning policy is being applied on the ground”. The report recognised local planning authority pressures and seeks to assist planners by proposing a series of tests for decision makers to apply in AONB cases, as a helpful practical tool.

The Rights of Way Act 2000 contains a general duty (s.85) for all relevant local authorities “to have regards to the purpose of conserving or enhancing the natural beauty” of AONBs when reaching a decision on activities relating to or affecting land within them.

The NPPF contains policies specific to protected landscapes (including AONBs) at paras. 115/6, and makes a distinction between major developments and other proposals. Further clarity is provided in the NPPG, but in essence “great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty”, while major developments should be refused except in exceptional circumstances, on the grounds of need, cost and scope elsewhere, and any detrimental effect on the environment, landscape and recreation, where moderation might be applied.

The NPPF also emphasised an up-to-date local plan as the starting point for deciding planning applications. Without such a plan, the default position is one of normally granting permission unless any adverse impacts would “significantly and demonstrably” outweigh the benefits of the proposal, when assessed against the NPPF policies as a whole. However, in AONBs, paragraphs 115/6 apply instead of the presumption in favour of granting permission (NPPF para. 14 and footnote 9).

The NPPG states that AONB Management Plans should be taken into account in local and neighbourhood plans and may be material considerations in individual planning applications.

Case study practice

Based upon the National Trust research, it appears that practice did not follow policy in many of the 15 case examples.

  • At least 10 cases did not adequately demonstrate that “great weight” should be given to AONBs as a matter of NPPF policy.

  • In 10 cases, the “duty of regard” for AONBs was not formally noted in planning reports.

  • Of the six cases where the local plan was not up to date, the correct national AONB tests were not applied in deciding four planning applications, notably exemption from the presumption in favour of granting permission for sustainable development.

  • Over “major development”, the need to show “exceptional circumstances” and “the public interest”, was weakly carried out.

  • In 4 of the 14 development management cases, the question of whether the development was “major” was not properly addressed.

  • In one of two strategic housing land allocations, the Local Plan inspector omitted reference to the NPPF policy, which allows for objectively assessed development needs to be met in AONBs.

Lessons

The research identified several wider lessons.

  • The integrity of AONBs is challenged by incremental cumulative development where one poor development justifies the next.

  • AONBs can suffer where there is limited availability of non-AONB development sites.

  • The main cause of pressure to release land for development in sensitive AONB locations came from local authorities with less than five years’ housing land supply.

  • The legal precedent from Highfield Farm, Tetbury, where pressing housing need can override the landscape protection status, where there are limited alternative sites outside the AONB in the same authority, is problematic.

Tests

The research produced nine tests to assist local authorities in applying law and policy in AONBs.

  1. Has the AONB duty to “conserve or enhance the natural beauty of their area” been implemented?

  2. Has the AONB Management Plan been taken into account?

  3. NPPF paragraph 115 requires that “great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty”, both within AONBs and their settings.

  4. Would proposed development be classed as “major” in line with paragraph 116?

  5. Permission for “major” developments should be refused unless there are “exceptional circumstances” to justify permission “in the public interest”.

  6. Is the local plan up to date and a suitable basis for evaluating development proposals?

  7. Is the development plan absent or silent?

  8. Has the local plan included criteria-based policies reflecting the highest level of landscape protection afforded in line with NPPF para.113?

  9. Have development plan polices been applied?

Recommendations

The National Trust recommended the following.

  • Decision makers should apply the nine AONB tests for planning applications.

  • Ministers should clarify how they will deliver their commitment to the proper protection of AONBs, through a ministerial statement.

  • Government needs to consider whether these tests should be added to the NPPG.

  • Government should ensure practitioners are trained to improve the implementation of AONB law and policy, with the provision of necessary resources to local government and the various AONB bodies and units.

Conclusion

It is both disappointing but opportune that the research discovered an unsatisfactory application of planning policy within the case studies. Planning policies and guidance are in place, but the problem lies in their correct interpretation and implementation by local authorities and professional planners. The results are only as good as the professionalism and expertise of the planning staff. How far is this a result of austerity and resource shortages and how far does it represent a deeper malaise and demoralised planning service struggling under the continual onslaught of Government involvement? The credibility of the planning service in the AONBs and elsewhere is on the line.