How we did it: Producing a joint plan for a protected landscape

How two councils drew up the first jointly produced plan for an area of outstanding natural beauty. By Colin Marrs.

The view from Arnside Knott (pic: LANCASTER CITY COUNCIL)
The view from Arnside Knott (pic: LANCASTER CITY COUNCIL)

PROJECT: Arnside and Silverdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty local plan

ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: Lancaster City Council, South Lakeland District Council, Arnside and Silverdale AONB Partnership

In March 2019, two North West councils adopted the first local plan covering an area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) to be produced by two local authorities working together. The Arnside and Silverdale AONB local plan won the spatial planning category and was overall winner at the 2019 Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) North West Regional Awards. The RTPI called it "an innovative and groundbreaking plan that showcases a wide range of skills and high-quality planning work".

Daniel Hudson, strategy lead specialist at South Lakeland District Council, moved from neighbouring Lancaster City Council in 2010. He says that even back then there was an aspiration for the two councils to work together on a plan for the AONB.

The idea began to turn into a reality in 2012, when the district was preparing its local plan site allocation document. The council found that its emerging policy for the provision of affordable housing fitted uncomfortably with the need to protect the AONB. "The council-wide policy [affordable homes could only be demanded on schemes of 10 homes or more] meant you could only deliver affordable housing on larger sites," says Hudson. "That was proving problematic, as large sites did not fit well in the AONB landscape."

In discussions with the city council, the district began work on a local plan covering the AONB. Maurice Brophy, planning and housing policy manager at Lancaster City Council, says: "We were at an earlier stage of our plan, but were also coming to the conclusion that the AONB would need its own bespoke approach, taking into consideration the fine grain [approach to development] that the protected landscape demanded."

The councils worked with the Arnside and Silverdale AONB Partnership – the management body for the area – to launch a call for sites. The process adopted a "landscape capacity" approach, according to AONB partnership manager Lucy Barron. "This meant that we were not being led by an overall figure [for housing] but were looking at each site to decide whether it could accommodate development without harming the special qualities of the landscape," she says.

The three parties formed a joint working group, which Hudson says built good relations with parish councils in the AONB. Drop-in events were held in village halls and individual meetings were held with parish councils to update them on progress. "We worked closely with local communities to try and get support and to understand their needs," says Barron. "All stakeholders, including landowners and developers, were given the chance to feed in their comments."

Although it has been labelled a "local plan" and was examined as such, in formal terms the AONB plan is a development plan document in each local authority’s main local plan. But it still required additional resources from both local planning authorities.

The process was also complicated in 2014, when the Ministry for Housing Communities and Local Government named specific rural areas where affordable housing should not be sought on applications for fewer than five homes. Hudson says this would have scuppered any affordable housing in the plan because all the proposed housing sites fell under this threshold.

"We had to argue at the examination that we should be allowed to adopt an exceptional approach," he says. "The councils were allowed to adopt a policy that reduced the threshold to just two homes. The inspector accepted our approach was justified." Ultimately, the plan included allocations for 42 homes and four hectares of mixed-use, employment-led development that also included additional housing.

Producing the plan also prompted the unintended consequence of creating demand among residents of Lancaster’s other AONB. "Although the situations are very different, the residents of Forest of Bowland AONB felt that Arnside and Silverdale was receiving bespoke attention and they were missing out," says Brophy. "We had to convince them that a joint local plan approach was not suitable there, but we adopted the principle of a landscape-led approach for that area in the main local plan."

Other issues were caused by the fact that the district council has an adopted community infrastructure levy (CIL) regime, whereas the city council does not. This means that, unlike their neighbours, parish councils in Lancaster do not receive any CIL money. The perceived unfairness was a hurdle that had to be overcome to garner support for the joint plan process. "Although Lancaster is looking at adopting a CIL there is not much we can do about it at the moment," says Hudson. "You just have to explain the situation to them.

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