Over recent months the chair and three members of the Society approached Sarah Wollaston (MP for Totnes) about planning permissions which were being granted for sites in AONBs but which seemed contrary to government policy. Our concerns were similar to those raised at a national level by the National Trust's report 'Development in and Affecting Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty' of September 2015. Dr Wollaston asked for a brief summary of the problem which she could present to a minister, and was given the following:
The Protection of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty
We ask that, for a temporary period only, the Secretary of State should call in an increased proportion of planning applications affecting AONBs, and that some additions be made to Planning Practice Guidance.
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are a national resource, and the policies set out in the National Planning Policy Framework for their conservation are as clear and as detailed as they could practically be. The Government's wish to preserve these special landscapes is not in doubt.
However, from our own observations locally, and from the research done for the National Trust in England and Wales, it is clear that local planning authorities are too often allowing damaging development of the sort which the policies are intended to prevent.
Where an LPA allows inappropriate development in an AONB, it may be because it places local, usually comparatively short-term, considerations first, or because it doesn't understand the policies. Or, especially in times of financial constraint, it may fear the cost of an appeal against refusal. If it grants permission it is very unlikely that it will be held to account - it will not be required to reconsider its decision on the particular case, nor will it be given such advice as would prevent repetition. So there is a gap between policy and implementation.
The National Trust report included 15 cases in which it was felt that policy had not been correctly followed. Two thirds were decisions by LPAs. Obviously, because they were approvals, they weren't subject to any re-examination.
Usually, when a breach occurs, it will be seen only by residents or frequent visitors to the area, and in our experience they are the only people who will draw attention to it. The remedies open to them are limited to judicial review or a request for the Secretary of State to call the application in.
Judicial reviews have brought out some important lessons, but they have serious disadvantages. They are extremely expensive, so are only likely to be used if wealthy owners of private housing are affected by the development in question - they will rarely help in the protection of the more remote places which will often have the highest landscape value. And they will often be seen not as a reliable search for truth but as a contest between local parties, with an uncertain outcome depending on the abilities of expensive lawyers. They cause divisions within communities.
We fully understand that a call-in which leads to an inquiry by an inspector is very expensive, but it is a search for truth from which lessons can be learned. However very few requests for call-in are agreed - we believe the figure is about 1%.
Why does it matter?
It must be assumed that the government is trying to conserve and enhance landscapes in AONBs for the benefit of very many generations to come. This requires more than a gentle brake on development: if protection is to have any meaning over such a long time scale it has to be rigorously applied.
Each time an LPA allows a development in contravention of the NPPF, or without openly carrying out the tests it requires, the harm extends well beyond the site involved. It sends a clear message to the local population, whose understanding and support is vital to any AONB's survival, that in reality the designation makes little difference. And it sends the same message to developers from outside, who use the AONB label as an important selling point. (So houses that have been allowed on green fields in the AONB on the grounds that they increase the supply of dwellings for local people are often to be seen advertised in the national press, with the AONB as a selling point.)What can be done about it?
To give him the opportunity to consider the extent to which the Government's intentions are being achieved on the ground, we ask that for a period of time the Secretary of State should consider for call-in an increased proportion of planning applications affecting AONBs.
The Minister of State, DCLG, said in May 2012 'The Government believe that planning decisions should be taken in, and by, local communities, and so use their call-in powers sparingly. Essentially, the powers are used when matters are of national significance'. The Government's reluctance to intervene in local planning matters is fully understood, but the protection of AONBs is a matter of national significance - they are protected by national policies because they are a resource for the whole nation and beyond - their health is not just a concern for local people or for the current generation.
We understand that no criteria for calling in applications are published, so we believe that our request could be met by a simple and temporary change of departmental procedure. The objective, however, would be very similar to that of the published changes to appeal recovery criteria that DCLG has published in recent years.
It is accepted that it will always be difficult to select cases for call-in from the many that are requested. One starting point might be the strength and reasoning of any objection by the AONB Partnership and/or Natural England. The errors found in the National Trust report centred particularly on failure:
to identify the NPPF policy under which AONBs are exempted from the presumption in favour of granting permission for sustainable development;
to identify clearly whether the development is major or not;
where a development is identified as major, properly to show exceptional circumstances and that the development is in the public interest;
to show that the duty to have regard to the statutory purposes of AONBs to conserve or enhance the natural beauty of their area has been carried out;
to demonstrate that the LPA has fulfilled its statutory duty in making any decision "to give great weight to conserving landscape and scenic beauty" in AONBs.
These and other commonly made mistakes were well set out in the National Trust report, which also included a set of recommended tests. Could a version of those tests be included in Planning Practice Guidance?
Dr Wollaston sent this to Rory Stewart, the DEFRA minister with responsibility for AONBs, who forwarded it to Brandon Lewis, Minister of State for Housing and Planning, in DCLG. He replied on 20 April:
While it may appear that the exercise has not achieved very much, it has made clear that any solution must come from DCLG and that that is where pressure needs to be applied. Neither Natural England or DEFRA seems able to help, or to be very concerned.
It is our hope that people will join the campaign to secure the protection of AONBs that was promised in the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 general election, and that this correspondence will give them some initial guidance.
We are extremely grateful to Dr Wollaston for the time and effort she has put into helping us with our case.
The National Planning Policy Framework -
The National Trust's report Protecting England's Special Countryside - 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(May 2016)