When is a Valued Landscape not a Valued Landscape?

Jeremy Smith, Director, Landscape Architecture discusses how valued landscape is becoming the common cause for application refusals and what can be done to overcome this.

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I recently gave evidence on a proposed housing site in Surrey which had been described in the Reasons for Refusal as a “valued landscape”, a phrase coined by paragraph 109 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Landscape is increasingly used as a reason for refusal by local planning authorities, and in my experience valued landscape is probably the most common reason for refusal.

The site in question does not contain any landscape or landscape-related designations, other than a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) which would be safeguarded as part of the development. It is close to an Area of Great Landscape Value (a Local Authority designation) and also an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) (a national designation), but it is not possible to obtain views from the AONB towards the site.

This is becoming a repeating theme; across the UK, undesignated sites are being elevated to the status of valued landscapes, even though, previously, they have never been formally recognised in Development Plans. Appeal decisions such as Radford Semele, near Leamington Spa, have lit the blue touch paper (reference APP/T3725/A/14/2222868, decision dated 10th March 2015). I didn’t work on that project, but I have seen the site; housing was proposed on agricultural fields, which had no formal landscape designation, and which separated a listed church and a small group of houses from a listed public house and the main part of the settlement. The Inspector felt that this was a valued landscape, within the scope of paragraph 109 of the NPPF.

What I find particularly interesting about this is that whilst the NPPF introduced the concept of valued landscapes in 2012, the latest landscape architect’s guidance on landscape and visual assessment, the Guidelines for Landscape and Visual Impact Assessment, Third Edition (GLVIA3), was produced in 2013, and this specifically deals with the value of undesignated landscapes; in particular, Box 5.1 of GLVIA3 (page 84) sets out a list of criteria to be considered. Whilst this list is not comprehensive, it certainly includes the main factors which influence value for the majority of sites. On the face of it, you would think that this would provide the necessary tools to resolve all debate on this topic, since this is a landscape issue and GLVIA3 is accepted as the national guidance on landscape and visual assessment, and yet the Radford Semele Inspector dismissed the Box 5.1 criteria, saying that this was “a guideline for professional landscape practitioners”, and had the NPPF intended this to be the technical process “it would have said so”. Setting aside the chronological conundrum of the NPPF citing GLVIA3 before it had even been drafted, why did the Inspector feel that he should rebuff the GLVIA3 Box 5.1 criteria?

Interestingly, what the Radford Semele Inspector goes on to discuss in his report is a series of considerations which he feels give value to the site, in particular the setting of the listed buildings. Ironically, such an analysis could, and should, have been considered within the framework offered by Box 5.1 of GLVIA3, which specifically states that the presence of features of cultural interest can add value to the landscape, as well as having value in their own right.

The Radford Semele decision was issued at a similar time as Mr Justice Ouseley’s High Court judgement on the Stroud DC v Gladman case in the Cotswolds (reference CO/4082/2014). This judgement provides some further clarity on the definition of valued landscapes, since Justice Ouseley agrees with the Inspector’s conclusion that “to be valued would require the site to show some demonstrable physical attribute rather than just popularity”. The “demonstrable physical attributes” which are discussed in the Cotswold case included access on well-used footpaths and views towards the Cotswold escarpment. Both of these considerations would be assessed under the Box 5.1 criteria.

In my view, whilst GLVIA3, and particularly Box 5.1, is guidance, it is well-structured, clear and practical guidance which, if followed with care by landscape professionals, should provide a logical process by which to judge all valued landscapes (and all proposed developments). The application of a common set of criteria will also ensure far less divergence in judgements between expert witnesses, even if the interpretation of those judgements remains a bone of contention.

Consequently, where questions of landscape value arise, whether it is for local authorities or developers, I therefore urge the careful application of the Box 5.1 criteria, ideally set within a robust and thorough landscape and visual assessment.

If you’d like to discuss this issue further please email Jeremy jsmith@slrconsulting.com or call +44 (0)1159 647 280.

Key Contacts:

Jeremy Smith