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Saving beauty for the people

Heather in the Quantock Hills AONB, Somerset Heather in the Quantock Hills AONB, Somerset

England’s first Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the Quantock Hills, was designated in 1956, in the last months of the life of the man who did so much to secure their creation – CPRE’s founder Sir Patrick Abercrombie.

His 1926 manifesto for CPRE had called for stringent controls over development in what he referred to as ‘Special Scenes of Famed Beauty’ – SSFBs anyone? By 1937, his colleague Clough Williams-Ellis was able to publish Britain and the Beast, a collection of high-profile essays in support of government intervention on the matter.

Novelist EM Forster’s contribution urged the country’s leaders and officials to secure the most important examples ‘of the beauty that took hundreds of years to grow, and can never be replaced’. Economist John Maynard Keynes put it even more directly: ‘Where the preservation of the countryside from exploitation is required for reasons of health, recreation, amenity, or natural beauty ... the obvious remedy is for the state to prohibit the outrage.’

The state’s remedy was the 1949 National Parks Act, which also allowed the creation of AONBs to safeguard landscapes considered equally beautiful, if not as wild or sensitive. Since the designation of the Quantocks, 33 more AONBs (covering 15% of England) have been created, putting natural beauty within 30 minutes of two-thirds of the population.

For almost 60 years, they remained oases of tranquillity and inspiration, but our research has revealed that since 2012, there has been a dramatic increase in major housing developments in England’s AONBs. CPRE’s November 2017 report, Beauty Betrayed, found that in the past five years over 15,000 homes have been approved within our AONBs – an increase of 82% since 2012, resulting in the loss of at least 259 hectares of greenfield land.

Our report called for the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to be strengthened to protect AONBs from the large developments (over 10 units) that are often comprised of large, unaffordable houses.

So we were pleased that last month’s draft revised NPPF formally stated that housing schemes of ten homes or more should be defined as ‘major development’, and so require ‘exceptional circumstances’ to secure planning permission.

But we’d like to see the government make it clear, as it is for Green Belt, that market demand for housing, or difficulties in building on alternative brownfield sites, should not constitute ‘exceptional circumstances’.

CPRE also remains concerned about proposals that non-residential developments can cover up to 1 hectare – an area larger than Twickenham’s rugby pitch - before being classed as major development. This could lead to intrusive commercial or industrial developments sneaking under the radar, with potentially devastating impacts on AONB landscapes.

Most worryingly, the new draft omits the wording that has always underpinned AONB’s protection – that designated landscapes ‘have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty’. It is crucial that this commitment is reinstated to the final NPPF, or developers could exploit any uncertainty about their level of planning protection.

The stakes are high. CPRE’s early campaign for AONBs was inspired by an understanding that we were heirs to a uniquely diverse and beautiful landscape. The commitment to protecting our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty means that we are still in a position to pass on this bequest to succeeding generations. But careless decisions now could still deny them, in Abercrombie’s words, ‘something beyond material wellbeing – the blessing of beauty’.

Worryingly, the new NPPF draft omits the wording that has always underpinned AONB’s protection – that designated landscapes ‘have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty’

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