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An outrageous national betrayal

Across from Win Green in the Cranborne Chase AONB Across from Win Green in the Cranborne Chase AONB © Charlie Waite

CPRE’s latest research reveals that we are losing great chunks of England’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Since 2012, we’ve seen a five-fold increase in AONB land being allocated for major housing schemes of ten or more units.

Cumulatively, this means that around 2,000 outstandingly beautiful acres (plus another 1,400 around the edges of our AONBs) are set to be lost to bricks and mortar – but not in a form that will make a dent in the affordable housing crisis. Data from industry analysts Glenigan indicates this land will be developed at a density (17 to 20 dwellings per hectare, compared with the national average of 32) indicative of expensive, ‘executive’ houses.  

The total impact will leave a footprint almost the size of England’s largest lake, Windermere. But because these developments are spread around the country, the visual impact will impinge on a far wider area. All this in just five years and, most ominously, the trend appears to be accelerating.

Perhaps using an unloved acronym for some of our best-loved countryside is one of the reasons we find ourselves in this situation. Many people, even politicians, don’t seem to realise that AONBs should enjoy the highest level of landscape protection alongside National Parks. They were conceived as a fundamental part of the 1949 National Parks Act, and their protection has supposedly been clarified in a number of Ministerial statements.

This misconception means that housing proposals that wouldn’t be contemplated in their better known, and better funded, siblings are easier to push on to AONBs; a pattern entrenched by a National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) which, since 2012, has encouraged local authorities to prioritise housing numbers over landscape protection.

Unlike National Parks, AONBs have no statutory planning powers, and rely on the decisions of a multitude of local councils all trying to meet their housing targets. It’s easy to see why these councils have been flooded with opportunistic applications for large developments of very expensive homes. The big housebuilders might feel justified in enriching their shareholders, but can it be right that they are allowed to impoverish the opportunities of millions to enjoy the life-enhancing qualities of these landscapes?

Promoting better development
That is not to say that we can’t be positive about building new homes in AONBs. CPRE’s founder Patrick Abercrombie always argued that the right housing could help our villages flourish. He cited the “delightful” farmworkers’ cottages and almshouse that made Milton Abbas “one of the most charming villages in Dorset” – and now one of the most popular destinations in the Dorset AONB.  

That is just the sort of high quality and characterful development that AONBs need, and can still aspire to … if CPRE’s recommendations are taken up by the Government:

  • Reforming the New Homes Bonus could remove the financial incentive for local authorities to allow large, exclusive housing developments on AONB land. Surely, this would be better spent funding affordable homes within their market towns and villages?
  • The NPPF should be amended to reflect that large housing developments should not generally be considered in AONBs. This would help close the loopholes that encourage developers and minimise the resources wasted on contentious proposals. By creating certainty, all parties could re-focus their time, energy and investment on community-led housing and urban regeneration.
  • Perhaps most importantly, the primary statutory purpose of AONBs – to conserve and enhance natural beauty – should become the overriding factor in decision-making for planning in them. AONBs can and will do their bit to provide affordable rural housing, but the main battle of the housing crisis will be won on the brownfields of our cities. Meanwhile, AONBs can continue to engage people with the natural environment and enhance their physical and mental wellbeing.

Back in 1946, the then chancellor Hugh Dalton presented the idea of protected landscapes as an opportunity to “dedicate some of the loveliest parts of this land to the memory of those who died in order that we might live in freedom”, and “to the use and enjoyment of the living for ever". We must not allow this great national inheritance of beauty to be cashed in so carelessly.

 

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17 November 2017

AONBs can do so much to engage people with the natural environment and enhance their physical and mental wellbeing.




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