No national policy on natural beauty?

Last week the Campaign to Protect Rural England did its very best to bring the public’s attention to the scale of threats facing (what we thought were) nationally protected landscapes. Amongst the nine proposals highlighted, there were two in the south-east – the Brighton & Hove Albion football stadium in the South Downs AONB and Imperial College’s nightmarish vision for us here in the Kent Downs AONB. On Wednesday, both BBC and Meridian TV came to film in Wye for their south-east regional news programmes. But the most fascinating coverage had already taken place earlier in the day, when the ‘Today’ programme on Radio 4 had gone to the trouble of interviewing, not only Tom Oliver of CPRE and Martin Perry of Brighton & Hove Albion FC, but the very interesting Kelvin McDonald …

The ‘Today’ programme’s Sarah Montague asked: Is the CPRE right that the government has lost the plot on this?

Kelvin McDonald: No we don’t think they are. I think we need a sense of proportion here. Government policy is very strong on protecting areas of beauty and the Royal Town Planning Institute would fully support that. But if you actually look at government policy, it’s not saying that these areas should be preserved in aspic. It would be very handy in some ways if you just drew a line on a map and said ‘protect this area forever’. But if you do that, then you are preventing local communities having much needed development for employment and other things. Government policy is actually certainly to protect these areas, to go through the most rigorous levels of planning to protect the areas, but also to say that if there is needed development on a national or a local scale then this should be allowed as well.

Sarah: But even if rules are meant to be flexible, is there an unprecedented assault on them and therefore more requests are being accepted than ever before?

Kelvin McDonald: Certainly the CPRE has come up with a list of nine schemes at the moment. But again bear in mind that something like 15% of the whole country is covered by these Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Twice the amount of …

Sarah (interrupting): But surely the rules should be stricter? If you have an AONB it should remain that way, and nothing should be allowed to be built on it?

Kelvin McDonald: But if nothing is allowed, then what about the communities that live in these areas? I don’t want to go into details on specific schemes. But for example they cite the Kent Downs. The whole of Sevenoaks is surrounded by the Kent Downs. Are you saying no more progress, no more development in such a large area? You must be flexible. And this is where the planning system needs to make these very tough decisions.

Sarah: One of the nine locations is for the building of a bypass?

Kelvin McDonald: Again government policy (and I’m not an apologist for government and never have been) government policy is that, if a scheme is needed in the national interest, then it needs to be considered on that basis. What the RTPI would say in this context is that we do need a national plan, we do need a national strategy, so that we are not just fighting nine different schemes in different ways. We do need a strong national policy spelt out through a national plan.

Sarah: Whatever you believe about the rules, do you think that we are losing more of our green countryside as a result of changes?

Kelvin McDonald: We are losing countryside but we are also gaining. It is interesting when you talk about greenbelts which is the other great aspect of planning policy in the United Kingdom. We have actually increased the amount of greenbelt in this country. There are swings and roundabouts.

So who is Kelvin McDonald you might ask? Well, apart from being the Director of Policy and Research at the Royal Town Planning Institute, Kelvin McDonald is a member of the Management Board of the ODPM’s Planning Research Network and of the steering group of the ODPM’s Planning Advisory Service. He was a member of the Ministerial Advisory Group on Planning Contributions and a specialist adviser to the House of Commons’ ODPM Select Committee for its inquiries on affordable housing and on sustainable communities. He attends meetings of the Planning Officers Society but he sent his apologies for their cabinet meeting on 10 March 2006 when they discussed ‘Making it work – the planning system’. Without him they ‘agreed not to seek to develop a relationship with CPRE’ …


BBC Radio 4 Wednesday 30 August 2006 0842 Are specially protected beauty spots under threat from developers?


About David Hewson

Professional novelist, published in more than 20 languages. Creator of the Nic Costa series set in modern Rome, Pieter Vos in Amsterdam, adaptions of the Sarah Lund stories in Copenhagen, and versions of Shakespeare worked for Audible.
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