How We Did It: Achieving the first AONB extension for 29 years

Patience and partnership were key to completing twenty years of work to expand the existing Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, say the protagonists.

Low tide on the Stour at Mistley (Pic: Getty)
Low tide on the Stour at Mistley (Pic: Getty)

PROJECT: Expanding the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (SC&H AONB)

ORGANISATIONS INVOLVED: Natural England, Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB Partnership

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced on 7 July 2020 that a 38 sq km expansion would be made to the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (SC&H AONB).

It was the first AONB extension in England since the expansion of the neighbouring Dedham Vale AONB in 1991, and follows work done over 20 years by a partnership between SC&H AONB, government advisory body Natural England, local councils and numerous statutory and non-statutory organisations.

The expansion sees the wildlife-rich Stour estuary, the river itself and the estuary slopes to the south in Essex becoming part of the AONB designation, bringing with it national status, statutory protection, community grants and what those behind the extension hope will be millions of pounds in tourism.

It’s a decision that Beverley McClean, AONB planning officer at the joint Suffolk Coast & Heaths and Dedham Vale AONB partnerships, says makes sense geographically and from a planning perspective. With the north bank of the estuary already inside the AONB, she says it made sense to extend the protected area so that the whole estuary, as well as its surroundings, had the same status.

And while development pressures weren’t one of the key drivers for designating the area, she says, increased influence on development on the previously non-designated south of the estuary will help to prevent visual intrusion on the north side.

David Vose, senior adviser at Natural England, says: "Designation provides the basis for a more coordinated and integrated approach to management, giving priority to the area’s natural beauty."

While there are a significant amount of organisations in the partnership, Natural England is the one with the power to designate or extend an AONB, and the area in question must first and foremost meet its strict natural beauty criteria.

Vose said that this process is time-intensive. The government advisory body had to assess whether the land in question was of outstanding natural beauty. Factors considered include landscape and scenic quality, relative wildness, tranquillity and natural and cultural heritage.

There was also a long process to assess whether the originally proposed AONB extension boundary should be varied, factoring in various evidence and consultations with local authorities who requested the inclusion of additional land.

“It’s important to engage stakeholders throughout the process,” said Vose. “An informal consultation helped in decision-making, as did including the public in the formal statutory consultation in 2018, which provided a broader indication of support.”

Vose credits this “robust assessment” for removing any need for a “potentially time-consuming and expensive” public inquiry after the decision to extend was finally made.

The AONB partnership doesn’t hold any planning powers, but aims to use the planning system to influence development so that it furthers the purposes of the designation – to conserve, enhance and protect the natural beauty of the area.

As well as offering specialist advice to developers and local authorities, it commissions studies on landscape planning matters. One such study guides developers on the selection and use of colour in specific landscapes so that they can opt for colour palettes that help their developments blend in with the background.

Prior to the approval of the extension, the joint AONB team for SC&H and Dedham Vale produced a management plan for the proposed expansion area, which became a material planning consideration. This helped to ensure that any development in the candidate area didn’t compromise its eventual designation, says McClean. “It’s important to treat candidate areas as if they have already been designated,” she adds.

Tendring District Council, a member of the SC&H Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB partnership, helped by setting out the boundaries of the aspired-to extension in its emerging local plan in 2017, and by making the proposed expansion a material consideration for planning applications in the area.

“Designating an area is a driver for higher quality development in that area,” says McClean. “When applications come in, they have a clear set of criteria of what will be expected.”

McClean stressed that the extension is not intended to stop development or keep these places as period pieces “where nothing happens”. Indeed, there are currently development consent orders for no less than three nationally significant infrastructure projects within the SC&H AONB, she said.

Instead, the AONB aims to prevent inappropriate development that could compromise the area’s natural beauty, she says.

“There had been a desire amongst local authority partners for many years to extend the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB,” says Vose. “The new areas will now benefit from the incentives, powers, duties, responsibilities and resources that designation brings.”

Councillor John Ward, leader of Babergh District Council, which was also in the SC&H AONB partnership, told Planning that the designation will benefit a swathe of villages and communities after years of hard work. He said: “This announcement supports our aim to continue to conserve and enhance heritage assets and natural habitats”.

David Wood, Suffolk county councillor and Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB Partnership chairman, added: “With this news, we can be confident that the natural beauty of the area will be conserved and enhanced for future generations.”

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