Briefing: Landscape character profiles offer context for local action

An England-wide database offers improved access to environmental information for planning at all levels. Alison Chapman explains.

Q What constitutes a national character area?

A The national character area (NCA) project divides England into 159 distinct areas and provides a detailed evidence base for a wide range of environmental information. Each area is described by a unique combination of landscape, biodiversity, geodiversity and cultural and economic activity.

NCA boundaries are defined by natural landscape characteristics rather than administrative areas, so they are a strategic decision-making framework for the natural environment. As well as providing a locally focused description of the landscape and the drivers for change, NCA profiles also identify strategic environmental opportunities to help communities become more sustainable.

Q How were the character areas developed?

A The NCA profiles evolved from environmental assessment work on joint character areas that was carried out by the Countryside Commission and English Nature. This work was undertaken in the late 1990s and has now become a well-established tool in spatial planning.

The area boundaries remain the same, but the profile content has significantly expanded in response to fulfilling commitments in the 2011 natural environment white paper, the Biodiversity 2020 strategy and the European Landscape Convention. The NCA project has been undertaken by Natural England staff, working alongside many local and national stakeholders and partners.

A new addition to the profiles is a description of the local "ecosystem services" provided in each area, explaining how these benefit people, wildlife and the economy. This category covers topics such as provision of food and timber, regulation of flooding, soil erosion, water quality and opportunities for recreation, biodiversity and geodiversity.

Q How can NCAs be used in national and strategic planning?

A The NCA profiles provide a resource for understanding the wider landscape context and highlighting opportunities for enhancement of the natural environment. This is acknowledged as being important in the National Planning Policy Framework through numerous references to conservation and enhancement at the level of the entire landscape.

The NCAs also provide an environmental evidence base to underpin forward planning documents such as local plans, because they set out a desired direction for an area. NCAs often overlap local authority or other administrative boundaries, thus enabling cross-boundary working and good communication between neighbouring authorities, as well as with other bodies.

Q How can the character areas be used in local planning and partnership working?

A In most cases, several NCAs will overlap a local economic partnership or local nature partnership area, thus providing a cohesive cross-boundary evidence base for informing their priorities and encouraging collaborative ways of working. NCAs can help local authorities and their partners in joint working under the duty to cooperate, to address strategic planning and environmental issues that cross administrative boundaries.

Q How can NCAs be used by local communities?

A NCAs provide a first stop for information that can bring a diverse range of organisations together with a common purpose. They can be used to plan future projects and initiatives by identifying what is most important about an area and what management will be most beneficial.

The profiles help stimulate interest in place-making activities such as neighbourhood planning and support funding bids for initiatives such as Heritage Lottery-funded landscape enhancement projects.

Q How can they be used in a development control context?

A The evidence in the NCA profiles can be used to inform thinking when considering planning applications and as a steer when writing planning conditions. They can help in determining whether proposed developments are in line with or contrary to the character of the area, and identify what changes could be made to improve the contribution of such proposals to the landscape. The local ecosystem service information can also help to ensure that vital assets are not damaged or disrupted by proposed developments.

Alison Chapman is a landscape planner at Natural England

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