What is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty?
area of outstanding natural beauty

What is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty?

An area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), is a location in England, Wales or Northern Ireland which has been marked for conservation because of it’s considerable landscape value and scenic beauty. Areas are recognised in light of their national importance by the relevant public body. These are: Natural England, Natural Resources Wales, and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. There are 46 AONBs around the UK, 34 of which are in England.

Areas of outstanding natural beauty enjoy particular levels of protection from development, similar to UK national parks, however the public bodies mentioned above do not have their own planning powers. An AONB means that local authorities have “a permissive power to take action to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the AONBs in their respective areas”.

Before the relevant public body determines whether an area can become an AONB, it must meet the “natural beauty criterion”. This may be a combination of factors, including:

  • The quality of the landscape, where man-made or natural landscape is good quality
  • It is of scenic quality, such as striking coastal land formation
  • Relative wildness, such as the distance from housing or having few roads
  • Relative tranquillity where natural sounds, such as birdsong or streams, are dominant
  • Natural heritage features, such as the distinctive geology or species and habitat
  • Cultural heritage, which can include the surrounding environment, including buildings that make the area unique. This can include historic parkland or archaeological remains.

It is possible for an AONB to straddle several local planning authority areas, and to ensure a consistent approach is maintained and there is a continuity of advice. There is often an AONB Board that meets and consults regarding issues around planning applications. Such applications are considered against specific AONB policies within a local development plan.

Under the CROW Act, the relevant local authority must ensure that all decisions take regard of the purposes for conserving and enhancing the beauty of an AONB. Their decisions and activities must take into account the purpose and effect it will have within the AONB and any land outside its boundary.

It should be noted that there are still some permitted development rights within AONBs, although you would need to contact your local authority to find out what these are if you live in such an area and wish to add an extension to your home.

Each AONB must have a management plan produced and reviewed by the local authority, which must be put into place within 3 years of its designation. Following which a review must take place within 5 years of the beginning of the plan. All plans must be available to the public to view, some of which can be obtained from the designated AONBs websites.

The management plan should include:

  • An assessment of the special quality of the AONB. This may be a landscape character assessment, for example, which may include its vulnerability to change or condition.
  • Cross-referencing to existing plans, such as biodiversity action or local transport plans.
  • A strategy, such as a five-year plan of how any changes will be managed.
  • Other special sites that exist within the AONB, such as points of special scientific interest or scheduled ancient monuments.
  • An action plan as to who is responsible for what, why and time scales for implementation.
  • A monitoring plan to show how the AONBs’ condition and effectiveness of management will be measured.

It is important to understand such plans if you live in an AONB because they are used to help shape local and neighbourhood plans and make decisions on proposals for further developments.

How to find out if your property is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)

You will need to contact your local authority in order to establish this. There are also various websites that allow you to input your postcode and search a plot map. Property searches carried out by your conveyancer will also establish whether the property falls within an AONB

Increasing development in and around AONB’s

Because of the pandemic, the pursuit of more outdoor space has been a driving force behind people re-evaluating their lifestyles, with an increased interest in both space and greenery. Living in an AONB links into this trend and is reflected in the premiums homebuyers can expect to pay.

Living in an Area of outstanding natural beauty (AONB) comes with its advantages, and not merely scenic ones. The average price of a detached property in one of the UK’s 46 AONBs is 32.7% higher than a similar property located within 5 kilometres of the boundary.

However, it is clear that AONBs are facing unprecedented and increasing pressure from housing developers. This pressure is largely being seen in the southeast and southwest of England, where local authorities are finding it difficult to balance meeting the required housing targets imposed by central government and protecting the AONBs in their care.

Pressure is also coming from developers whose sustained demands on local authorities are seeing an increasing number of planning applications being submitted on greenfield AONB land. Local authorities continue to grant a high proportion of such applications in pursuit of increasing housing numbers. These issues fly in the face of the highest planning protections that AONBs are supposed to enjoy.

A recent report compiled by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), reveals there has been an 82% increase in new homes being given planning permission in the past five years in England’s 34 AONBs. This is despite restated commitments from the government to “maintain national protections for AONBs for the benefit of future generations.”

The above percentage represents almost 15,000 homes built since 2012, with the amount of planning applications more than doubling over that time. CPRE’s report includes data from Glenigan, who are data specialists on the UK construction industry, and shows clear evidence that housing developers are applying pressure on local authorities to build new homes on AONBs by exploiting conflicting and poorly designed national planning policies.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) state that protection is afforded to AONBs because government policy allows housing targets to be lower in designated areas and there is a recommendation that “major developments”, including housing schemes, should be refused by local authorities except in “exceptional circumstances”.

Recently, a planning inspector allowed an appeal by a developer for 133 homes offering assisted living for older people within the Chilterns AONB, after concluding that “exceptional circumstances” existed that justified the consent being given. The inspector sided with the developer on all counts and decided that the AONB did not matter, which raises important questions about the sanctity of other locations of AONBs.

Because the NPPF terms of reference are poorly defined, it has led to the creation of loopholes that are often exploited by developers. AONBs rely on planning inspectors and local authorities for their protections, and the unmitigated weight of applications and appeals means that huge and unsuitable housing developments are getting through as local authorities grapple with the pressure from developers.

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