Posted by: dorsetcpre | May 30, 2012

AONB Report

My strong impression is that some parts of the AONBs are suffering from a cumulative ‘development creep’ that is going unreported by the authorities. To contain this creep, I believe local councils should be more rigorous and transparent in their stewardship of the AONBs, starting with annual reporting on the quantity and type of development. Even if the early reports are not comprehensive, they will at least provide a platform for public debate and scrutiny, and a bit of fresh air in the planning departments might be a good thing for all!

Dorset has two AONBs that collectively cover 542 square miles – 53% of the County. These are the Dorset AONB (435 sq miles) and the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs AONB (of which 107 sq miles are in Dorset). Together, they represent one of the largest of the 36 AONBs that cover only 15% of England’s total land area. So, the combined size of Dorset’s AONBs makes them not only an important asset to the County but also to the Country as a whole, and certainly worth protecting.

When walking through my local, remote rural bit of the Dorset AONB, I used to have the nagging feeling that the number of buildings in the landscape was gradually increasing and changing the quality of the landscape, with a new barn here, a new dwelling or conversion there, and perhaps a new farm track snaking its way up the lower slopes of the scarp. Each development may have been permitted on ‘its own merits’ but the cumulative, negative visual impact seemed to have gone unnoticed by the Planning Office.

Doing some amateur research I established that in the AONB Management Plan years from 2004 to 2010, some 41,000 planning applications were registered by the 4 Councils that comprise Dorset County Council (i.e. excluding Poole and Bournemouth). Of these, about 18,200 (45%) were in or connected to the two AONBs:
Using information from the Dorset Data Book for 2010, the data for each district can be measured against the number of dwellings and total area:
A more detailed analysis of one ward in North Dorset, Lydden Vale, showed that about 23% of all applications were refused or withdrawn.

The data must be treated with some caution but, if nothing else, the figures give us for the first time some indication of the size and the risk of cumulative development within the AONBs.

Many of the applications might have little or no impact on the countryside but, on the other hand, just a few small buildings scattered over a sensitive area, such as north of Hambledon Hill, can have a devastating impact on the visual quality of a beautiful area. Scattered buildings in a landscape can look like litter when viewed from nearby hills.

So, the biggest question of all is what cumulative effect have all these applications had on the quality and ‘outstanding natural beauty’ of the AONBs?

The first difficulty in addressing this question is how to measure the quality or beauty of an area, and how to match such values against the need for a proposed development. Unfortunately there is not enough space to touch on this subject here except to refer you to a paper to be found on the Internet titled: “Monitoring Landscape Change: AONBs and landscape character assessment in the Malvern Hills” (Professor Nick Evans, 2008, Centre for Rural Research, University of Worcester).

The Cornwall and the Malvern Hills (and perhaps other) AONB teams have devised techniques for assessing the value of particular areas, identifying the major indicators of a landscape and setting up procedures for monitoring “trajectories of change”, and getting to grips with defining ‘beauty’.

As far as Dorset is concerned, the relevant section of its own AONB 2009-14 Management Plan is Policy L1b aims to:

“Minimise and reduce the cumulative impacts of small-scale incremental change that erodes landscape character”.

The related ‘action plan’ (page 40) is to:

“Develop informal guidance and checklists to inform the development control process and guide the public and farmers on small-scale domestic development and agricultural development” and the target / indicator is to “produce checklists and guidance by 2012.”

A bit late in the day perhaps, but it means that airing our concerns now is very timely as far as the Dorset AONB Management Plan is concerned.

Delivery of this action plan is allocated to the AONB team in partnership with the Local Development Authorities (LDAs). However, I have to admit that I have some concern over the commitment of the LDAs to the AONB Management Plan, as one rarely sees case officers referring to specific AONB policies and, in the absence of strong measurement criteria, concerns expressed by the AONB team seem to be easily overruled. It is even possible that the AONB teams are not routinely informed of Agricultural Notifications. In fact, we don’t really know how effective the AONB policies relating to planning, development and infrastructure have been in conserving and enhancing the AONBs, as there is no public report on this subject.

In defence of planning offices, the law governing development in the AONBs appears to be very loosely worded and when it comes to the countryside, some officers wrongly believe (in my opinion) that there is a “general presumption in favour of agriculture”. As a result, planning decisions can appear to be subjective and arbitrary. Furthermore, the weakness of enforcement procedures and the serious absence of penalties for non-compliance make the planning system an optional choice for many. All of this causes people to hold the planning process in low esteem.

This is a serious issue and as far as I can see, other than to tighten the regulations, the best way to ensure higher standards of delivery is for planning offices to give more publicity to their activities. At the moment planning offices as a matter of course do not correspond with third parties; this, and the absence of any information stifles the opportunity for informed debate.

From my limited experience, the Annual Monitoring Reports produced by each local council would be an ideal vehicle for some performance reporting relating to developments within the AONBs. However, as far as I can see the Reports don’t really distinguish between AONBs and the rest of the countryside, and no specific reference is made to any targets or policies in the AONB Management Plans.

I think there is some room for improvement here, and the Annual Monitoring Reports should at least give us some basic statistics on number of barns, dwellings, equine developments, intrusions into quality areas, land withdrawn from agricultural use, loss of SSIs etc (there is some information on these last two already).

The truth is that barns, sheds and dwellings go up in the countryside, but don’t come down. With premium prices attaching to recreational land and to residential dwellings, and with the fragmentation of rural land ownership, there is a constant pressure for development within the countryside and within the AONBs. But, other than at the level of each specific application, we don’t know how effectively the Local Councils have been in containing these pressures, although our eyes tell us that they might have been missing a trick or two.

by John Holiday

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