Spring at last… my favourite season. After a long winter with trees stripped bare of leaves and the world shrouded in grey, people and nature both long for the return of the sun.
Our landscapes: full of character and bursting with life
I genuinely still feel that childish excitement when I spot the first snowdrops, followed by the purple, yellow and white hues of crocuses, and then the cheery daffodils. I can almost feel it in my bones – life is edging into our countryside and green places once more. And oh, the smell in the air of the blossom which adorns many of our trees and hedgerows at this time of year… England’s landscapes have sprung to life, with such diversity of character and qualities that make each place unique and special.
And our wonderful green places make a huge difference to our health and wellbeing, with a recent survey showing that 88% of people feel refreshed and revitalised after a visit to the natural environment. An almighty 96% of people believe that having green space close to where they live is important1. So it’s no surprise that many people want to protect the green spaces and landscapes they love, be they in open countryside, on the edge of towns, or in our cities, to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy these places too. But in many cases, the planning system has not given enough consideration to concerns about changing those places, and development has been given the green light, regardless of the impact on the special character of the landscape. This has even happened, and continues to, in some of our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, places that are supposed to have the highest level of planning protection2. If these places are at risk, then it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the countryside.
Research by CPRE has found that 55% of the English countryside is unprotected and so at risk of badly planned development3. CPRE gained an important success in the final National Planning Policy Framework, published in 2012, which recognised the ‘intrinsic value of the countryside’ as one of the core principles. Yet, we have continued to be concerned that the wider ‘ordinary’ countryside is being chipped away at and in years to come, many of these places will be almost unrecognisable; their character slowly eroded.
So CPRE very much welcomed the Planning Minister, Brandon Lewis MP, writing to the Chief Executive of the Planning Inspectorate recently, to set out why landscape character should be an important consideration in future planning decisions.
The Minister cited several recent planning appeal cases in which harm to landscape character has been a key reason that the appeal has been dismissed. These include an application for 60 houses in Cheshire, where the council do not have an agreed local plan for the area or a five year land supply for housing. Districts without these policies in place are more vulnerable to speculative planning applications. In this case, the planning inspector concluded that the proposal would result in ‘obvious and irrevocable damage to the surrounding countryside and the character of this clear edge to the settlement…’ A similar case is highlighted in Buckinghamshire, where four applications were made for up to 6,000 homes. Permission was refused in January 2015 as the development would ‘conflict with national planning policy objectives of securing good design, conserving and enhancing the natural environment and open countryside’. A final example is in Gloucestershire, where an appeal was recently dismissed for 24 hectares of polytunnels in an open rural landscape. Our President, Sir Andrew Motion, visited the proposed site with our local group last year and reflected that to allow the development would be ‘a horrendous act of vandalism’ on a landscape that was the inspiration for the Dymock poets4. The planning inspector said that: ‘The main issue in this appeal is consideration of the effects of the proposal on the landscape and visual character of the area.’
We are heartened that planning decisions are increasingly considerate of the impact each development may have on local landscape character. It’s certainly better late than never. But there is also a real need to help communities record and protect what’s special about their landscape, such as through neighbourhood plans, and we hope to be able to offer guidance on this soon.
In the meantime, I’ll be enjoying springtime, getting out to my local green places of Richmond and Bushy Park at the weekend (paddling in the streams and playing Frisbee) and doing my best to develop a stronger future for England’s landscapes.
2. Going, Going,Gone? England’s disappearing landscapes CPRE (2013)
3. Protecting the wider countryside CPRE (2012)
4. The story was covered recently in the Guardian
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