Â· Public authorities worst offenders, says CPRE
Â· Campaigners list beauty spot ‘jewels’ in danger
Wednesday August 30, 2006
The supposed defenders of the British countryside are dodging and defying their own rules to permit development in beauty spots, according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England.
Weakened planning laws have opened the way to new roads, quarrying, wind farms and other invasions of wild landscapes, in spite of a battery of legal measures intended to protect plant and animal life as well as peaceful solitude.
Serious damage is imminent to two national parks and seven officially designated areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), says the CPRE, which has posted a list of “nine jewels in the crown” under threat. “This is not a matter of developers finding some clever loophole in the laws,” said Tom Oliver, the group’s head of rural policy. “It is the authorities themselves – central and local government – which are threatening most of the damage.”
A resurgence in road building schemes has followed sweeping changes to planning law two years ago, which removed county councils’ responsibilities. At the same time, county councils were given or confirmed in the status of highway authorities. “Naturally enough, energy has often since gone into highways policy rather than planning protection,” argued Mr Oliver.
The “assault on the rules”, as the CPRE terms the change of attitude, has also alarmed the government’s cost watchdog, the National Audit Office, which monitors central government spending, and the Audit Commission, which does the same for local councils. Both are questioning the spiralling costs of road schemes, and the cost-benefit analyses used in preliminary planning discussions and public inquiries.
Mr Oliver said that a “spectacularly damaging” example was the proposed £78m Weymouth bypass, which threatened to wreak havoc with the South Dorset Ridgeway, Bincombe Valley AONB and bronze age monuments. The cost-benefit analysis for the scheme was already outdated and would worsen, in terms of environmental damage, as the likely bill for the road rose, he said. “It is very significant that the auditors seem to be our biggest allies in protecting these places,” he said. “Cost is an issue in other cases too, for example where authorities are threatening to sell greenfield sites for building to raise money to build roads themselves – double damage to the countryside.”
The list of prime sites at risk stretches from the Hadrian’s Wall county of Northumberland, where an offshoot of UK Coal wants to build 24 wind turbines, to Brighton and Hove Albion’s planned new football stadium within the boundaries of the proposed South Downs national park.
One battle has already been lost. In the Lake District national park bulldozers moved in this month to start a dual carriageway bypass round the hamlets of High and Low Newton, on the A590 between the M6 and Newby Bridge. Other threatened “jewels” in the list are making their way through planning procedures or at a preliminary consultative stage.
Areas such as the nine in the list are given specific protection in the government’s own rules on “sustainable development in rural areas”, published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2004. These state that “major developments should not take place in these designated areas, except in exceptional circumstances”. The government rejected the CPRE’s claims yesterday and said that planning protection remained robust.
A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said that national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty had “the highest levels of protection”, but added: “Planning decisions in these areas must of course weigh up the need for strong environmental protections against other social and economic factors such as the need for new jobs and infrastructure.”
Landscapes under threat
Status of threat Under way.
A 2.3 mile dual carriageway bypass on the A590 round High and Low Newton. The £35.3m scheme, approved on the basis of a planning inquiry decision dating from 1994, is entirely within the Lake District national park and will cut through open countryside. Bulldozers moved in to start road construction early this month.
Status of threat Inquiry awaited.
Renewed activity at Backdale quarry, in the Peak District national park – seen as the test case on quarrying in national parks. Stop notice served by Peak District national park authority, planning inquiry starting in February.
Devon race circuit
Status of threat Planning decision awaited.
Ex-formula one champion Nigel Mansell and Dunkeswell Kart Racing Club want to develop Dunkeswell racing circuit in the centre of the Blackdown Hills area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB). Extension to the track has been passed but a large facility including a 280-seat restaurant awaits a decision by East Devon district council. No environmental impact assessment has been made.
Status of threat Planning application published.
A 2.9 mile £78m bypass taking the A354 north of Weymouth through Thomas Hardy country, the Bincombe Valley AONB, Lorton Meadows nature reserve and barrows and other bronze age sites on the south Dorset ridgeway. Objections from the Countryside Agency have helped achieve a cost/ benefit reappraisal after a 42% increase in costs since provisional approval was given in December 2003.
Status of threat Local proposal
A new Wye Research Institute and Science Park and thousands of houses are proposed by Imperial College London in the Kent Downs AONB. Master planning by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill is under way. Opponents point to available land near Ashford where far less environmental damage would be caused.
Peak District road
Status of threat Public inquiry expected
A 3.5 mile stretch of the Mottram-Tintwistle bypass would be widened, cutting unspoilt moorland, woodland, the Swallows Wood nature reserve, green belt, four national trails including the Pennine way and a 1.3km stretch of the Peak District national park. A public inquiry is expected next year.
Status of threat Going ahead
Twenty turbines almost 90 metres in height to blade tip have been approved at Fen Farm, near Conisholme. Visible from 20 miles away, they are seen as a major visual intrusion into the Lincolnshire Wolds AONB. National Power rejected the site seven years ago as too environmentally sensitive but John Prescott ruled last year that there was not sufficient conflict with national policies to refuse planning permission.
Northumberland wind farm
Status of threat Planning application expected
Twenty-four 92-metre turbines are proposed at Plenmeller near Haltwhistle, threatening major visual intrusion to Hadrian’s Wall, the North Pennines AONB and the Northumberland national park. Planning application by Harworth Power (UK Coal) is awaiting an environmental assessment and has yet to be submitted to Tynedale council.
Status of threat Permission granted, subject to legal challenge
The new Brighton and Hove Albion FC football stadium and transport interchange are proposed at Falmer, within Sussex Downs AONB (due to be confirmed as a new national park). The case goes to the high court in December after six years of planning arguments.