National Parks include some of our most beautiful and inspiring landscapes. Covering nearly 10% of England, they make a huge contribution to the economy – tourism in English National Parks contributes £4bn a year – as well as playing a vital role in protecting and enhancing natural and cultural heritage. These areas have the highest level of planning protection, yet this does not always prevent damaging major development from taking place in, or close to, National Parks.
Stanage Edge, Peak District National Park (photo – Howard Crowe)
The Department of the Natural and Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University, were asked to undertake this research project, funded by the Campaign for National Parks, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), and the National Trust, over the summer of 2016. We were asked to investigate the interpretation and application of the so-called ‘major development test’ (the test) in National Parks in England and Wales. My fellow lead researcher, Dr Cate Hammond and I have a long-standing interest in the protection of our National Parks, and we were ably supported throughout the project by one of our postgraduate students, Nikky Wilson.
We were asked to respond to concerns that despite the test being an integral part of the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), this does not always prevent damaging major development from taking place in or close to our National Parks. Our clients wanted us to investigate the effectiveness of the planning protection given to National Parks in England and Wales in relation to these major schemes.
The full report of our main findings can be read on line at http://www.cnp.org.uk/SHU-planning-research.
This is the current wording of the relevant paragraph in the NPPF (the test is slightly different in Wales):
“116. 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 meetinthe need for it 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 test has been amended several times since it was first introduced in 1949 (then known as the ‘Silkin test’). Perhaps the most significant changes were actually made by William Waldegrave in 1987, when National Park Authorities (NPAs) were first required to consider the impact of approving or refusing a scheme on the ‘local economy’. Our research has shown that reference to the ‘local economy’ is a significant factor in the approval of major development applications.
We evaluated major development policies in the Local Plans of all NPAs in England and Wales. This demonstrated that there was significant variation in both the definition of major development and NPAs’ interpretation of existing policy. The definition of major development perhaps seems a fine legal point, but it can have significant impacts on the implementation of the test. A legal opinion provided by James Maurici of Landmark Chambers in 2014, emphasises that the definition of major development in relation to the test is a matter of planning judgment to be decided by the individual NPA. Importantly, national significance or absolute scale is not mentioned, but the severity of the impact on a National Parks’ special qualities is paramount.
We investigated the implementation of the test by searching NPAs’ planning portals to examine over 70 individual cases, and then a more detailed examination of fifteen selected case studies. We also undertook interviews with senior NPA planning officers and received comments from National Park Societies, National Trust planning advisers and CPRE local groups.
We are extremely grateful to all those NPA planning officers who gave up their time and local group members – often working as volunteers – who provided us with a rich background to many of the individual planning cases. We came to fully appreciate the size and complexity of these cases. Many local group members commented on their admiration of National Park officers dealing with such time consuming schemes. The research also identified many examples of good practice which we hope will be promoted widely amongst all the NPAs.
Our main findings suggest that the existing test is generally well supported by NPAs. It is not the actual wording of the test which causes any significant issues. As one local group member commented to us “the policy would have been sufficient to turn down xxx application, had they wanted to”. However, there is strong support for more guidance on the interpretation of some of the terms in the test, such as ‘public interest’ and ‘exceptional circumstances’.
Although the current wording of the test in the NPPF is weaker than the original Silkin test, the most recent changes do not appear to have had any significant impact on decisions. Local and national decisions continue to reflect central government’s agenda at any particular time, and also the continuing challenge of supporting National Park purposes whilst allowing local economic development. Enabling the sustainable development of local communities whilst ensuring National Parks’ primary purposes to protect and enhance these special landscapes for everyone to enjoy, remains the challenge at the heart of these complex cases.
As a result of our main findings, the CNP, CPRE and the National Trust have published a series of recommendations aimed at both National Park Authorities and the English and Welsh Governments. These include:
- Government should reconfirm its commitment to National Parks in the forthcoming 25 Year Plan for the Environment by clearly stating how they will ensure their long-term protection and enhancement.
- National Park Authorities should ensure their local plans are clear about how the major development test should be applied in relation to the special qualities of the National Park in order to help reinforce and support local decision-making.
- The Government should make it clear that the duty to ‘have regard’ to National Park purposes applies to developments in the setting of National Parks. Ministers should also emphasise that this duty applies to all public bodies, including neighbouring planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships and Combined Authorities. This should be addressed by a Ministerial Statement.
- The Government should ensure that developers are aware of the additional planning protection afforded to National Parks and encourage them to engage with local planning authorities at an early stage when considering any development in, and just outside, National Parks. This should also be addressed by a Ministerial Statement.
- Natural England should take a more active role in ensuring that National Parks are effectively protected from major development. This should include producing an annual update setting out how the major development test is being implemented and providing guidance or training for NPAs to address any issues identified. Government should support Natural England to fulfil its statutory responsibilities for designated landscapes.
- To ensure that the many sensitive and important areas for biodiversity and wildlife in National Parks can be safeguarded, it is essential that protections for nature are maintained after the UK leaves the European Union.
We hope our research has helped our clients’ work to provide the highest levels of protection for these designated landscapes.