What a government-backed review of national parks and AONBs could mean for planning

A government-commissioned review seeks to beef up planning powers for areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), which some commentators fear could have resource implications for local authorities, and to strengthen the economic purpose of national parks.

Lake District: national park review published
Lake District: national park review published

In June 2018, journalist Julian Glover was appointed by former environment secretary Michael Gove to lead an independent review of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs). Glover and his review panel were tasked with exploring how access to protected landscapes can be improved and their role in growing the rural economy. Last weekend, the Landscapes Review published its final report.

Among its 27 recommendations were a number of changes to the planning system (see panel). These included beefing up the planning powers of the bodies that manage England's 34 AONBs to allow them a greater say in new development proposals and introducing new guidance to give AONBs and national parks "great weight" in planning decisions.

Some of the most far-reaching proposals concern AONBs, which the report says should, with national parks, be called "national landscapes". It calls for a "new and larger" financial settlement for AONBs to "include new resources to reflect their enhanced purposes, responsibilities and activities". Currently, AONB management boards involve representatives of the local authorities, typically have at least one planner, and are funded by local authorities, according to observers.

Proposal six of the report calls for AONB bodies to become statutory consultees in the planning system. The report said: "At present, statutory consultee status for AONBs sits solely with Natural England which, as a national body, cannot be expected to know every area in the way a dedicated local AONB team does." It added: "Statutory consultee status should encourage developers to consult AONB bodies before making a formal planning application, to facilitate good design and mitigation and – with net gain soon to be mandated – helping secure this."

In addition, AONBs should, working with their local authorities, prepare their own local plans to "set out a vision, explain how conservation and recreational purposes will be implemented and how the needs and requirements of the local community will be met". The report claimed that "planning policies and decisions, especially in large AONBs, can vary immensely between authorities". In addition, there "is often no shared vision for the landscape as a whole, with different local authorities taking different approaches, inconsistent with the AONBs’ purpose and character," it argued. 

Philip Ridley is head of planning at East Suffolk Council, which covers part of the Broads Authority and the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB, and the Planning Officers Society's rural planning spokesman. He expressed concerns that AONBs getting stregthened plan-making powers might impact on local authority resources and create the potential for duplication of duties. "What they're talking about is potentially problematic. It's not always the case that you need a bespoke planning document for an AONB. We already work hand in glove with AONBs to deliver local plan policies that benefit the status of the area. Is this another layer of bureaucracy?" He also questioned whether giving AONBs more funding might impact on the local authorities that host AONBs. "That money has to come from somewhere. Is it just moving the deckchairs around?"

James Ellis, associate director at consultancy Rural Solutions, said AONBs producing their own development plans "could be quite time-consuming and difficult to deliver, for both AONBs and the local authorities". He added: "There are financial implications of AONBs producing a completely separate local plan, or the local authority creating a new policy document."

John Scott, director of conservation and planning at the Peak District National Park Authority (NPA) said: "AONBs are often cross-boundary - how will councils in those areas work together on development plans? That will inevitably create extra work. They have the duty to cooperate with each other but this goes further than that." 

The report also called for the government to issue new planning guidance to make a reality of the 2018 National Planning Policy Framework’s promise to give the conservation and enhancement of national landscapes "great weight" in planning decisions. "National landscapes" is used as the collective term in the report for both national parks and AONBs.

Ellis said that new national guidance that provided clarity and consistency on the issue would be helpful for practitioners. He said: "We do find that different national parks can take very different approaches, in terms of policies and decisions, to balancing landscape against socio-economic issues. Some can be very protectionist, some can be more supportive of new development."

A further recommendation in the report is for national park's existing duty "to seek to foster the social and economic wellbeing of local communities in their area" to be strengthened by making it a new statutory purpose. Crispin Truman, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) expressed concerns that "adding an economic purpose to National Parks and AONBs may inadvertently put these landscapes at risk of inappropriate development being pushed through". However, Fenella Collins, head of planning at rural business and landowner lobby group the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said the move could help to "rebalance" the planning system in those areas "away from a purely environmental focus".'

Scott said the new social and economic purpose for NPAs is likely to mean planning officers greater use of what's known as the 'Sandford Principle'. This requires decision-makers to attach greater weight to conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of national parks where there is a conflict between their economic and environmental purposes. "I think we will see much more use of the Sandford Principle because the potential for conflict will be greater," he said.

Collins and Ellis said they expected the government to push ahead with the proposals, despite Gove's departure from the environment secretary role. Collins said: "The 25-year environmental plan and the introduction of net gain for nature in our planning system shows the government's direction of travel. I see no reason why these recommendations, wouldn't fit in to this new political prism where delivering a better outcome for the environment is paramount." But Scott said the loss of Gove will "lessen" the review's impact: "His replacement Theresa Villiers won't be quite as committed to it as Gove was."

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