In national policy terms an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty has the same level of protection as a national park. In practice national parks are more focused on that policy than other local planning authorities (LPAs) such as South Hams District Council. Parishes, amenity groups and individuals can play an important part in helping to redress the balance, and with increasing emphasis on localism that role should grow.
The National Planning Policy Framework
In an AONB there is no presumption in favour of sustainable development. This is true even for housing where the LPA doesn't have a five-year supply of sites. Para 14 of the NPPF sets out the principle of sustainable development and footnote 9 explains that it doesn't apply in an AONB.
In making any planning decision in or affecting an AONB, an LPA is required to give 'great weight' to conserving landscape and scenic beauty. Para 115 of the NPPF reads:
Great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty. The conservation of wildlife and cultural heritage are important considerations in all these areas, and should be given great weight in National Parks and the Broads.
'Great weight' is not defined, but the requirement has to be taken seriously. It is the responsibility of the LPA to justify its recommendations for development proposals by referring to criteria for natural beauty and the AONB's special qualities. By doing this it will meet its duty towards the designation. We should expect LPAs to comply with this requirement.
Permission for any major development in an AONB should be refused except in exceptional circumstances and where it is in the public interest. Para 116 of the NPPF reads:
Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest. Consideration of such applications should include an assessment of:
the need for the development, including in terms of any national considerations, and the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy;
the cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area, or meeting the need for it in some other way;
and any detrimental effect on the environment, the landscape and recreational opportunities, and the extent to which that could be moderated.
Because of the additional tests required for a major development the decision as to whether a proposal be so classified is crucial, and it is left to the LPA to make it, before the application is published. We should expect an LPA to classify a development as major if:
its scale is likely to have a detrimental visual impact that harms the scenic quality of the AONB or its setting; or
its location would erode the special qualities and features of the area in which it is proposed (landscape, culture, biodiversity, tranquillity, etc); or
its nature is incompatible with its surroundings; or it would conflict with the economic and social needs of the local community.
(These tests are ones set out by the Tamar Valley AONB in its management plan and agreed for that AONB by Cornwall Council, West Devon Borough Council and South Hams District Council. So they can be considered reasonable.)
What can we do?
Get proposals out into the open as early as possible. Once a planning application is published it is usually very difficult to change it. Parish councillors are likely to be the first to hear of proposals and will have the local knowledge to assess whether they represent the best solution to whatever problem the would-be applicant is trying to solve. Informal discussion at this stage will be far more fruitful than it would be after the application is published. And, if it seems that the application should be classified as a major one, the LPA needs to be so persuaded before it publishes it.
The Environmental Information Regulations 2004 require an LPA, if asked, to disclose any pre-application or other discussions it has held on land development, subject to certain exceptions for any elements of the discussion that are genuinely sensitive. Anybody can ask for this information, and no reasons have to be given. Apply in the first instance to the development management department of the LPA and then, if refused, to its FoI function.
Press for planning applications to take into account local and NPPF policies from the outset. We should expect planning applications to acknowledge the constraints imposed by AONB designation and to explain how the proposal is compatible with them. An application which doesn't do this but is then made to fit will often be unsatisfactory.
Ensure that the LPA enforces planning conditions. Conflict with conservation is often deemed by the LPA to be overcome by landscaping conditions. This could only possibly be true if the conditions are enforced.
It may help if, when responding to applications, parish councils explain their views by reference to policies rather than simply ticking one of the boxes on the consultation form.
Incremental development is a problem. The case for a building in open country is not strengthened by an existing building.
Consideration of visual impact should not be confined to appearance from public viewpoints. Development has a way of spreading. AONBs are forever and the land to which the public has access is growing all the time.
When an LPA is carrying out its duty to give 'great weight' it has to exercise judgement in assessing the effect of a development, but the land covered by the designation is fixed. It is not for anybody to argue that any part of the AONB is unworthy of conservation.
The National Planning Policy Framework -
The National Trust's report AONBs and Development - https://ntplanning.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/national-trust-aonbs-and-development-sept-2015.pdf
Green Balance report Development In and Affecting Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty - https://ntplanning.files.wordpress.com/2015/09/development-in-affecting-aonbs-final-green-balance-sep15.pdf