smart growth uk


Jon Reeds
Jon Reeds is a freelance journalist and author of Smart Growth, From Sprawl to Sustainability


Nigel Pearce
Nigel Pearce is a former civil servant, now grappling with local planning issues as a member of the Eynsham Planning Improvement Campaign EPIC.


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A Sewing Lesson

Pretty well everyone in the UK who is not either a volume house builder or one of their consultants now accepts that our natural environment is badly fragmented.
So the DEFRA 25 Year Plan to Improve the Environment, published last February, is particularly interesting, containing as it does ideas for addressing this. Some have implications for its current Landscapes Review which it spawned.
The prime minister noted in her foreword to the Plan that our natural environment is our most precious inheritance and that the UK is blessed with a wonderful variety of natural landscapes and habitats.
The document, helpfully entitled A Green Future, promises a Nature Recovery Network to 'complement and connect our best wildlife sites' as part of action on biodiversity loss.
So far, so good. The proposal to create this additional 5,000sq km of wildlife habitat is welcome, although it's not that big when spread across the UK. But there we are, we live in densely populated islands where competition for land is intense.
Yet DEFRA could be missing a trick here, and it's one that its Landscapes Review which consulted recently and to which Smart Growth UK contributed, could provide some useful input.
The 25 Year Plan says a Nature Recovery Network could more effectively link 'existing protected sites and landscapes, as well as urban green and blue infrastructure'.
There is a long list of designations covering nature, landscape and other things. But before we get carried away, let's just look at the landscape designations, a primary focus of the Review.
The 25 Year Plan does admit that our national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty 'provide a patchwork of stunning, and protected, landscapes'.
Yet herein lies the problem.
Patchwork quilts are pieces of material sewn carefully together. But take a look at the designations section of the DEFRA Magic Map and you quickly see this is a patchwork quilt that has huge holes in it. Few of the patches are actually sewn together.
Of course much of the country would never qualify for a landscape designation as the landscape is not of sufficiently high quality. But once you start looking, you realise there are large areas that are the equal of, or even superior to, some of the places which are quite rightly designated AONBs thanks to their fine landscapes.
In our evidence we suggested seven areas in England which could and should have AONB status.
The Yorkshire Wolds.
Salisbury Plain.
The Eden Valley, Cumbria, south of Wetheral.
Northern central Northumberland, i.e. the area between Northumberland NP and Northumberland Coast AONB, north of Rothbury and Alnwick.
The area between Exmoor and Dartmoor, roughly the Taw catchment between Barnstaple, Crediton and Okehampton.
The Bronte Country, the high Pennines between the Peak and Dales national parks.
The Forest of Dean.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and no doubt other commentators will add to the list. Nor is it the end of the problem. Whatever process may have denied these areas the protection they deserve has also left several AONBs with borders which exclude areas which could, and should, have been included.
There is no doubt a range of reasons for this mess which could perhaps be summed up as 'special interest pleading'. There are quite a few such interests, some of them completely obsolete, like an intention to allow opencast coal extraction.
But just colour in some of these areas on the map of existing AONBs and national parks and you can see that, in places, the scatter of protected areas starts to look like a genuine patchwork quilt.
The Bronte Country, a remarkably omission, would complete protection of the high Pennines and fill a bizarre gap. The beautiful countryside of north Northumberland could link its fine coastscape with the Cheviots. The glorious countryside of central Devon would form a fine quilt with the two moorland areas. Salisbury Plain would sew the downland of the south country together.
The designation process for national parks and AONBs is tortuous and needs to be simplified, but it can be done. Recent years have seen the Howgill Fells added to the adjacent national parks to link the Lake District with the Dales.
If DEFRA means what its 25 Year Plan says about more effectively linking existing protected sites and landscapes, then this is surely a must.
There are huge landscape and biodiversity benefits were we to seriously link more of these areas together. No doubt there would be genuine objections, as well as others who simply fear any change. All their doubts would need to be addressed.
But the Landscapes Review is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address these issues. It needs to be taken.

Posted by Jon Reeds on 02 January 2019