COUNTRYSIDE watchdog the Campaign to Protect Rural England is today challenging the Governenment to balance the need for sustainable growth in rural communities with action to preserve precious landscapes under threat from development.
In an eight-point manifesto, the organisation is calling for Ministers to protect not only the nation’s most stunning landscapes such as the Yorkshire Dales National Park, which it says should be extended towards the Lake District, but also to create new Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) to protect further swathes of the countryside, including the Yorkshire Wolds.
The CPRE is warning it is vital to ensure planning legislation is well balanced in favour of economic growth while preserving Yorkshire’s world-famous natural environments.
And despite the financial pressures on local authorities it says the Government needs to recognise the benefits to be gained from the nation’s countryside, including the role of national parks in supporting tourism, and ensure enough money is available to secure its future.
Emma Marrington, CPRE’s Rural Policy Campaigner, said: “It’s time for the Government to up its game and stand up for the countryside.”
The CPRE is calling for the future of Natural England, which could be merged with the Environment Agency as part of an ongoing Government review, to be secured and for its work on national character profiles for different areas of the UK to continue and help shape local development plans.
It manifesto also says the European Landscape Convention should be “at the heart” of the Government’s approach to landscape, pointing out it is not even mentioned in the National Planning Policy Framework which sets out the Government’s planning policies for England and how it expects them to be applied by local authorities.
The charity is planning to publish detailed research on the impact the Government’s planning reforms are having on development decisions. It says evidence indicates that where decisions are heavily reliant on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), alone, damaging proposals are being too easily approved and warns of the cumulative effect of even small-scale development.
It calls for any significant scheme in a national park or AONB to be subject to the highest level of scrutiny under the major development test – questioning if it is in the national interest, if there is any alternative and what the impact would be on the local economy and the environment. Those that pass should be built to the highest environmental standards.
In particular, however, it warns over proposed changes to policy through the Growth and Infrastructure Bill which could limit applications for towns and village greens, but more significantly could relax restrictions on telecommunications infrastructure.
Chris France, director of planning at The North York Moors National Park Authority, said: “The Government has constantly said it values Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks and both Nick Boles [Planning and Development Minister] and Mr Cameron have said they will do everything to protect it and it would be good to see them act and show they walk the walk as well as talk the talk.”
Mr France echoed the CPRE in calling for assurances over National Park funding. The authority has been forced to swallow a 35 per cent funding cut over three years, resulting in around 25 staff being lost and major services hit such as the axing of the Moors bus service.
While he felt major development proposals in national parks were already the subject of rigorous scrutiny, he staunchly opposes the intentions made clear in the Growth and Infrastructure Bill to remove the necessity for National Parks to be informed of, and given the opportunity to appeal against, applications made by telecommunications providers to install infrastructure.
“It’s wrong,” he said. “In principle the Government is saying that for five years ‘forget that they are National Parks’.”
Ninety-nine per cent of these applications had been approved over the years anyway, he added.
Dorothy Fairburn, the Country Land and Business Association’s regional director for the North, warned, however, of the risk in being too restrictive over policy.
“We need to have a vibrant, working countryside.
“Too often young people are forced to leave rural communities because they have no opportunities.
“If planning is too restrictive and inhibits development, further adding to the loss of employment opportunities and drain of talent from the countryside, it will choke economic development.”
Margaret Cockbill, CPRE’s East Riding branch chairman, said: “It is on us to concentrate and say development is necessary but it has to be in appropriate locations.
“In East Yorkshire it’s important to protect the Wolds. That’s why we are looking to see these AONBs afforded protection.”
A Defra spokesman said: “The Government is committed to improving the rural economy and protecting and enhancing the natural environment.
“A number of measures are in place to protect our countryside, such as the National Policy and Planning Framework, which guarantees protection for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks.”