Home to the Kent Downs and High Weald (the latter shared with Sussex and Surrey), our county is blessed with two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). AONBs are some of the country’s most precious landscapes, which you might expect to mean they were safe from being built on. But even though these areas have the strongest protections available in planning law, they are falling foul to an increasing amount of rapid and reckless housing development, according to analysis from CPRE, the countryside charity. Threats to England’s 34 AONBs from development are increasing at an alarming rate – the Beauty still betrayed: The state of our AONBs 2021 report reveals a 129 per cent increase in the amount of greenfield land planned to be built over. The research, conducted by Glennigan Consultancy on behalf of CPRE, has found that high housing pressure is also being applied to land around AONBs, with the number of homes built in the setting (within 500 metres of the boundary) increasing by 135 per cent since 2012. It is clear this kind of sprawling development is bad for people, nature and the countryside. The research found that the developments on AONBs use up twice as much land compared with the national average for developments. Yet only 16 per cent of the homes built in AONBs are considered affordable even by the government’s own definition. Clear evidence shows that the real affordability of housing in many rural areas is much worse than the government estimates. Tragically, the kind of housing being provided will do little to tackle the affordable housing crisis while concreting over precious countryside and setting back action to tackle the climate and nature emergencies. Truman, CPRE chief executive, said: “The fact that some of our most highly-prized areas of countryside are being lost to build more executive homes says a great deal about our planning system. “Continuing with this ‘build and be damned’ approach just serves to line the pockets of greedy developers while undermining climate action, stalling nature’s recovery and gobbling up our most precious green space that’s vital for our health and well-being, all while doing next to nothing to tackle the affordable housing crisis. “Rural communities are crying out for well-designed, quality and genuinely affordable homes in the right places. We know this kind of development is possible. To start building the right nature-friendly and low-carbon homes in the right places, we must see a swift change of tack from the government to put nature and countryside communities at the heart of any future Planning Bill. Continuing to give developers more power in the planning system will only make this bad situation worse.” It is also interesting to note the north-south divide when it comes to threats to our AONBs, with particular pressure on AONB land in the South West and South East. In these areas, more than half (52 per cent) of all planning permissions for development on greenfield land in AONBs have been granted, including:
• The High Weald AONB has seen 932 housing units on greenfield land approved since 2017 • The Dorset AONB has seen 771 housing units on greenfield land approved since 2017 • The Chilterns AONB has seen 771 housing units on greenfield land approved since 2017 • The Cotswolds AONB has seen 684 housing units on greenfield land approved since 2017
CPRE is calling on the government to use the upcoming Planning Bill to strengthen planning protections for precious green space and prevent high levels of development in AONBs and, further still, only allow development if it meets the needs of local people, nature and the countryside.
You can read the report Beauty still betrayed: The state of our AONBs 2021 here
Under threat again? Farthingloe Valley, on the outskirts of Dover
Plans to develop the Farthingloe Valley in the Kent Downs AONB appear to be resurfacing.
When, in December last year, the Supreme Court confirmed that planning permission for more than 500 houses and a 90-apartment retirement village at Great Farthingloe Farm, together with associated development at nearby Western Heights, remained quashed, the decision of CPRE Kent to challenge Dover District Council’s granting of planning permission back in 2015 was vindicated.
The Supreme Court was confirming the Court of Appeal’s verdict that DDC planning committee had not given legally adequate reasons for approving the application. DDC had challenged that Court of Appeal decision, necessitating the Supreme Court case.
Now, however, the applicant, China Gateway International, has requested DDC provide a scoping opinion for an updated environmental impact assessment in preparation for a renewed application at the site.
Little seems to have changed in relation to the application itself. The planning consultancy says in its scoping report: “The Farthingloe layout is currently being reviewed in consultation with Dover District Council and consultees.
“The layout will include minor changes to reflect comments made by the council and consultees following submission of the application in May 2012.
“Progress on the Farthingloe layout to date includes; a reduction in the area of land to be developed with an increase in accessible green space, and; reorganisation of the proposed built development to reduce the height of buildings in the south west corner and to comply with the required setback distances for the existing sewer in the north east corner.
“It should be noted that between submission of the application in 2012 and permission being granted in 2015, the proposed housing development at Western Heights was reduced from 93 units to 40.”
Dr Hilary Newport, CPRE Kent director, said: “These plans are essentially unchanged from those initially submitted back in 2012.
“They remain as wrong and as unacceptable in an AONB now as they were then.”
Brabourne Lees is close to the Kent Downs AONB. Could it soon be neighbouring a national park?
Could the Kent Downs and High Weald be among our next national parks?
The intriguing possibility has been raised by Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s launch of a review into the role of the country’s national parks and AONBs (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty).
Mr Gove wrote in the weekend’s Sunday Telegraph that the “the time is right” for such a reappraisal, almost 70 years after the creation of our first national parks.
The review, which was committed to in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan published in January, will look at the possibility of expanding England’s network of national parks and AONBs.
It has been widely suggested that some of England’s 34 AONBs could essentially be upgraded and added to our 10 national parks. Our county has two AONBs: the Kent Downs and the High Weald, the latter shared with Sussex and Surrey.
Population growth, changes in technology and habitat decline were cited by Mr Gove as reasons to “look afresh at these landscapes”.
Hilary Newport, CPRE Kent director, said: “I’m delighted that the review could lead to a strengthening of protection for our natural areas.
“However, it would also be good to see proper protection of the designated landscapes that we already have, notably in Kent our two AONBs.
“Further, it would be encouraging if the review of our planning system followed sustainable principles that had protection of our most treasured landscapes at their core.”
Emma Marrington, CPRE senior rural policy campaigner, added: “CPRE warmly welcomes the appointment of an independent panel to carry out this potentially game-changing review.
“National parks and AONBs are of huge importance to the nation; two-thirds of people in England live within 30 minutes of a national park or AONB, with visitors contributing more than £6 billion each year to the local economy.
“The review will also consider how national parks and AONBs deliver their responsibilities and are financed – these areas offer great value for money, with public spending on these landscapes less than £1 per person each year.
“It is also important that existing national parks and AONBs are well resourced and able to deliver their responsibilities effectively.
“This includes by ensuring they continue to have the highest level of planning protection in the revised national planning framework.”