National Planning Policy Framework

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) sets out Government’s policy for planning in England and local authorities must have regard to this in reaching planning decisions and preparing their local plans. The NPPF confirms that AONBs are equivalent to National Parks in terms of their landscape quality, scenic beauty and planning status.

At the heart of the NPPF is a presumption in favour of sustainable development. This is set out at paragraph 14 which states that local planning authorities should meet their objectively assessed development needs and grant development proposals that accord with up to date development plans unless:

• Any adverse impacts of doing so would significantly and demonstrably outweigh the benefits, when assessed against the policies of the Framework taken as a whole; or
• Specific policies in the Framework indicate development should be restricted.

Footnote 9 to paragraph 14 clarifies that ‘specific policies’ include those relating to AONBs. As such, AONBs can restrict the presumption in favour of sustainable development; it acknowledges that there will be some circumstances where a local planning authority may not be able to meet its objectively assessed development needs owing to the need to prevent harm to AONBs. In such circumstances, a statutory ‘Duty to Co-operate’ allows local planning authorities to share the provision of development needs with neighbouring local planning authorities whose areas may have fewer material restrictions. In respect of development management, this paragraph revokes the presumption in favour of sustainable development where developments would affect an AONB in the case of development plans being absent, silent, or relevant policies out of date.

Relevant paragraphs for AONBs

Paragraphs 115 and 116 of the NPPF specifically relate to development in AONBs.

Paragraph 115:
“Great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in National Parks, the Broads and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty. The conservation of wildlife and cultural heritage are also important in all these areas”.
In order to comply with this policy it is clear that ‘great weight’ needs to be applied to conserving the landscape and scenic beauty of AONBs both in preparing local plans and in considering planning applications. Decision takers will need to take into account other material considerations but should provide reasoned justification if other considerations are given greater weight that that given to the conservation of the landscape and scenic beauty of AONBs.

A judicial review in respect of a planning permission for a residential development for 31 dwellings, R (Mevagissey Parish Council) v Cornwall Council, sets out the interpretation of paragraph 115 in determining planning applications. Here the judge stated that “the NPPF places the conservation of landscape and scenic beauty of an AONB into a special category of material consideration: as a matter of policy paragraph 115 requires it to be given great weight.”

Paragraph 116 relates to major development within AONBs:
“Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest. Consideration of such applications should include an assessment of:
• The need for the development, including in terms of any national considerations, and the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy;
• The cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area, or meeting the need for t in some other way; and
• Any detrimental effect on the environment, the landscape and recreational opportunities, and the extent to which that could be moderated.”

The NPPF does not define what is meant by ‘major development’. The national Planning Policy Guidance (nPPG) advises that this is a matter for the relevant decision taker, taking into account the local context and the nature of the proposal.

Paragraph 116 is clear that both the requirements of exceptional circumstances and public interest must be met. The assessments listed in the paragraph are mandatory, as indicated by the use of the word “should” and confirmed in case law (Wealdon DC v Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government). In this high court decision, the process for consideration under paragraph 116 is described: “Once the [decision taker] has investigated and assessed the matters identified in the three bullet points, as well as any other relevant considerations, he must then decide whether “exceptional circumstances and the public interest mean that the presumption against development in an AONB is rebutted in the particular case”.