The UK is a signatory to a number of conventions through the Council of Europe. These are not like so many EU conventions rule bound and regulatory, rather they are statements on our common ideals as European Nations, including the values as civilised nations to protect what we consider important. By being s signatory to these short, broad brush and flexible treaties the UK government has committed to upholding these values. There are important treaties on for example archaeology and heritage and important changes have come about to UK law to bring us into full compliance.
One of the most important, and most innovative is the Florence Treaty on Landscape (2000)
a new instrument devoted exclusively to the protection, management and planning of all landscapes in Europe…Landscape” means an area, as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors…”Landscape planning” means strong forward-looking action to enhance, restore or create landscapes.
The treaty has been highly influential and has guided the approach and philosophy of Natural England in seeing landscape not just as a ‘Natural Beauty’ but as a cultural landscape infused with meaning and shaped by human action.
The key aspects are articles 5 and 6
Each Party undertakes:
a to recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people’s surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity;
b to establish and implement landscape policies aimed at landscape protection, management and planning through the adoption of the specific measures set out in Article 6;
c to establish procedures for the participation of the general public, local and regional authorities, and other parties with an interest in the definition and implementation of the landscape policies mentioned in paragraph b above;
d to integrate landscape into its regional and town planning policies and in its cultural, environmental, agricultural, social and economic policies, as well as in any other policies with possible direct or indirect impact on landscape.
Whilst article 6 requires each party to
i to analyse their characteristics and the forces and pressures transforming them;
ii to identify its own landscapes throughout its territory;
iii to take note of changes;
Each Party undertakes to define landscape quality objectives for the landscapes identified and assessed, after public consultation…[and]…To put landscape policies into effect, each Party undertakes to introduce instruments aimed at protecting, managing and/or planning the landscape….to assess the landscapes thus identified, taking into account the particular values assigned to them by the interested parties and the population concerned
Gradually this was being put into place, especially through the countryside character areas programme and how county level strategies for influencing district level development plans.
The NPPF though is a great leap backwards and would place the UK in clear breach of the treaty.
For example consideration of ‘protecting valued landscapes’ (para 164) only applies to plan making (para. 165) where ‘plans should allocate land with the least environmental or amenity value, where practical [etc.]. But you are not permitted to make such a comparative evaluation when assessing applications where there is no up to date development plan in place or there is not a 5 year supply. There is no equivalent of para 69 of PPS3, rather when there is a shortage of housing, in addition to the presumption in favour of development there is a return to the 1980s ‘double presumption’ in favour of housing – that ‘planning permission should be grated’ no ifs and no buts, not even the qualification from circular 14/85 that this was overidden if this was contrary to ‘interests of acknowledged importance’. As the qualifier in para 14 on the presumption in favour of sustainable development only applies where ‘adverse impacts of allowing development would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies in this Framework taken as a whole.’ if a matter appears to be specifically ommitted in the NPPF, and the NPPF is clear – as hear – saying that development should ‘be approved’, then the decision maker would have no alternative but to approve the scheme.
The problem here is the narrow way in which ‘valued landscapes’ (para 164) is defined in para 167. Only the undeveloped coast, green infrastructure networks, the best and most versitile agricutural land and nationally designated landscapes are covered. The 80% of the English Countryside not so covered would not be protected by this clause.
Developers will argue where the development plan is out of date that even though the LPA may consider the landscape beautiful, indeed the most beautiful around a settlement that it does not meet the definition of ‘valued landscapes’ in the NPPF and so development should be permitted and land allocated in a development plan – even though it might be the least preferred around a settlement and the most harmful site.
The consideration of landscape is shunted into the narrow area of only the most nationally important sites, and is granted much less importance than other factors, such as housing growth, which trump it in these cases in all circumstances.
Many would accept that the idea that we must protect the countryside for its own sake over and above all other needs is too strict, but even then they we say we should, wherever possible, steer development to the least sensitive and beuatiful landscapes. The extreme language of the NPPF prevents even this.
Consider some practical examples:
For example consider hypothetically if Cambridge, Macclesfield, Stafford, Knaresborough or Stratford-Upon-Avon had a shortfall in their 5 year supply.
–Cambridge – the NPPF would allow development around the Gog-magog hills
–Macclesfield, Eastwards up the slopes of its dramatic pennine setting
–Stafford around its castle, such a landmark on the M6
–Stratford – northwards up the slopes of the Welcombe Hills
–Knaresborough, west of the town and the dramatic valley of the River Nidd
All would be permitted, none of these meet the definition of ‘valued landscapes’ and none of these areas being ‘extensive’ could be classified as Local Greenspace. Even if protected in local plans if without a 5 year supply they would be ‘out of date’ and the presumption in favour of development applies, indeed a double presumption.