The decision by Mid Sussex council to grant planning permission for 600 houses in the High Weald AONB sets a troubling precedent for our nationally protected landscapes.
High Weald AONB planning permission sets troubling precedent
Among the largest single developments proposed for an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the site at Pease Pottage was opposed by Natural England, local campaigners and even the neighbouring council for whom the houses are supposedly being built. None of these considerations was enough to stop the Government waving it through.
The Government argued that the council was justified in approving the development through ‘exceptional circumstances’, the only means to justify overriding protection for AONBs.
One might think, then, that ‘exceptional circumstances’ must indeed be ‘exceptional’, but the need to meet housing targets is increasingly being used as a trump card for inappropriate development. A 60-dwelling development was imposed on the Cotswolds AONB earlier this year for such reasons, while the North Wessex Downs is facing a proposal for 120 houses at Hungerford to meet a wider housing target.
This situation is deplorable on two counts. First, because housing targets, set by councils and endorsed by Government, are largely based on market-driven demand rather than actual, local need. Second, because councils are expected to lower targets if they have AONBs or other protected countryside in their area.
Put simply, councils should not be granting permission for speculative development in an AONB.
In response to such cases, the Government claims that it is up to councils to make these ‘tough decisions’. Yet the common denominator here is not councils, but Government.
In approving permission Mid Sussex council considered previous planning appeals in AONBs allowed by Government. In the case of the Cotswolds AONB, a Government-appointed planning inspector overruled the local council’s refusal on reasons of housing land supply. And, ultimately, AONBs are national designations: if councils are misinterpreting national policy then it is Government’s responsibility to set them straight.
The Government’s imminent housing white paper will define its approach to housing and the immediate future of our protected landscapes. Rumours abound that higher targets will be encouraged for areas of higher demand, with all the knock-on effects. We hope that ministers use this opportunity to encourage realistic housing targets that meet actual need, and fulfil their promise to protect the best of our countryside.