Protecting the Green Belt, National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other special places from inappropriate change is a core part of Green Balance’s work. The whole countryside is valuable too – no-one wants to be left with oases of excellence alone – so we encourage a careful approach to greenfield development. We engage in research, advise on environmental management, participate in plan preparation and take action on individual development proposals in pursuit of these principles.

Protected landscapes and Green Belt: sites

Green Balance has extensive experience in protecting nationally-designated landscapes of great beauty.  In the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) alone we have taken major roles in avoiding such schemes as:

  • a new village on top of the North Downs scarp overlooking Sevenoaks at Fort Halstead (also in the Green Belt) in 2010;
  • an equestrian eventing centre on top of the North Downs scarp at Detling in 2006–07;
  • a road-rail freight interchange in the setting of the North Downs scarp near Maidstone in 2009 (see Landscape case study on the Kent International Gateway); and
  • a block making factory on the edge of Borough Green (also in the Green Belt) in 2007 (see Local Campaigns).

Green Balance achieved a major success for the North Wessex Downs AONB Unit in saving beautiful countryside around Harwell Campus, Oxfordshire from 1,400 houses.  Vale of the White Horse District Council had proposed to allocate this land for development in its Local Plan, and Green Balance had submitted written and oral evidence to the Plan's Examination. In June 2016 the examining Inspector announced that this proposal failed the tests for being allowable in the AONB.  This overturned the concerted efforts of the Council, Harwell Campus Partnership and other developers and consultants. This was the largest housing development proposed in a Plan anywhere in the country, posing a massive challenge not only to the locality but to the purposes of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty everywhere.

Harwell Campus from Hagbourne Hill with The Ridgeway behind on the left. 1,400 houses were proposed on the fields around the research buildings, including 850 in front of the major line of trees in the middle distance.

Remarkably, Vale of the White Horse DC was not put off by the damning report by the Local Plan Inspector.  In Part 2 of its Local Plan, designed mainly to fill out details remaining from the Part 1 Plan, it made a second attempt, proposing 1,000 houses in and around Harwell Campus.  Green Balance was again asked by the North Wessex Downs AONB Unit to challenge this in written and oral evidence to the Part 2 Local Plan Examination.  In a further major success in December 2018, the second Local Plan Inspector agreed with us that the Harwell Campus scheme was not justified and should once more be deleted.

Currently a planning application is stalled for a windfarm of six 125-metre high turbines at Sellindge in the setting of the Kent Downs AONB (placed so high that their tips would be higher than the North Downs scarp) despite being applied for in 2012.  We reined back unjustified housing in the West Berkshire part of the North Wessex Downs AONB in 2010–11 (see Advocacy Case Study).

We successfully saved the Green Belt west of Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire from urban sprawl in 2000 (see Green Belt case study).

Protected landscapes: strategy

When the Coalition Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework was published in 2011, prompting campaigns notably by the National Trust and Daily Telegraph, there was uncertainty whether full provision would be made to continue the special planning policies long-established in nationally protected landscapes.  Working for the combined ‘South East and East Protected Landscapes’ (SEEPL) group, Green Balance provided a two-page leaflet in response in 2011 aimed at key decision makers to reinforce the landscape case.  This picked out the main issues, risks and opportunities in an easily-absorbed and visually striking way.

The National Trust has commissioned two reports from us to evaluate what effect the implementation of the National Planning Policy Framework was having on the countryside after 2012.  In September 2015 the Trust published our review of practice Development in and affecting Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.  This identified significant failings in planning decisions around the country to apply properly the NPPF's policy for protecting these nationally important landscapes.  The report identifies nine tests which should be applied by decision makers in AONB cases, relevant variously to planning applications and plan preparation, and to land within AONBs and to land in the setting of AONBs.  These tests provide a brief practical tool to assist local planning authority officers, elected Members and Planning Inspectors.  The Trust also issued its own accompanying summary report AONBs and Development.  The other report for the National Trust is described under Housing.

Malvern Hills: one of 39 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England and Wales

In 2018 Green Balance was commissioned by Exeter University, working with Dartmoor National Park Authority, to contribute to its ongoing SWEEP project: South West Partnership for Environment and Economic Prosperity.  Part of the SWEEP project is to explore the recreational impacts from the growing population around Dartmoor and to identify alternative economic models for generating income to fund mitigation.  We worked with Kristina Kenworthy to provide planning and legal advice regarding how local funding models could be delivered, particularly but not exclusively through the planning system.  This fitted into the 'natural capital' approach to decision making being explored by SWEEP.

The Green Balance submission to the Glover Review on designated landscapes at the end of 2018 responded to the consultation.  It focused on the need for a reinvigoration of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty to counter the increasingly casual attitude to them by some developers, some local authorities and the Government.  We argued for:

  • limitation of major developments within AONBs to genuinely exceptional circumstances, properly in accordance with law and policy;
  • extensive withdrawal of 'permitted development rights' which have allowed numerous small-scale developments to erode local distinctiveness in AONBs;
  • effective powers to hold local authorities to account for their decisions in AONBs: austerity cutbacks have reduced the priority many of them give to AONB protection, and this needs reversing;
  • greater attention to protecting the settings of AONBs, most urgent where the designation was in part for the view over the setting;
  • a national AONB agency with real powers of intervention.

We also considered that the remit of National Parks and AONBs should not be extended to cover a greater range of topics, but they should concentrate on their primary landscape quality purpose.  Nor should more National Parks or AONBs be designated, which would 'dilute the currency'.

Richard Bate gave a Paper to Suffolk AONBs conference 'Planning in designated landscapes' in January 2019.  This explained the legislation and reviewed current practice using selected case studies.  From decisions by Inspectors and the Courts, the paper argued that the hurdle for allowing 'major development' in AONBs is higher than many developers and local authorities believe.

The former Countryside Commission asked Green Balance to carry out a three year project in 1993–96 looking into The achievements and effectiveness of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board.  This Board had been given additional powers and finance to secure larger-scale outcomes for this AONB.  The Green Balance report was sufficiently favourable to help establish the case in law for Conservation Boards for other large AONBs in the Cotswolds and Chilterns.  We provided a further review for the Commission of the achievements and effectiveness of the High Weald AONB Joint Advisory Committee in 1998.

Following the Government’s announcement in 1999 of its desire to designate the South Downs as a National Park, Green Balance was asked to answer the question ‘what difference will a National Park make to biodiversity enhancement in the South Downs’?  Our report Opportunities for Enhancement in the South Downs National Park (with Cardiff University) for the Council for National Parks – with English Nature and WWF-UK – was published in 2001.  It showed how the additional resources, Government commitment, staff, status and the improved access to partnerships and to funds could be managed to secure major short term and longer term environmental benefits.

Green Belt: strategy

Green Balance aims to make Green Belt and other planning issues accessible to people.  The Campaign to Protect Rural England commissioned Green Balance to provide practical advice on ‘How to create new Green Belt’, published as the centrespread of the CPRE newsletter Fieldwork in December 2005.  A presentation on Green Belt and Planning for the Future to the AGM of the Reigate Society in 2013 summarised the history of this popular national policy and described the tensions and challenges it now faces.

Get in touch

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Case study

Green Belt

Hemel Hempstead protected from housing sprawl More »

Case study


AONB setting protected from development More »

Key resources:

Leaflet on Protected Landscapes in the National Planning Policy Framework

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Development in and affecting AONBs

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AONBs and Development (NT)

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Green Balance submission to the Glover Review

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Paper to Suffolk AONBs conference

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Opportunities for enhancement in the South Downs National Park

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How to create a new Green Belt

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Green Belt and Planning for the Future (presentation)

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