Planning proposals threaten national parks
Government proposals to relax planning laws in national parks such as Dartmoor and Exmoor would “undermine” the protected landscape, it has been warned.
Conservationists have become increasingly concerned with the message from ministers who have warned communities in parks areas risk becoming “museum pieces” because of special planning restrictions.
Those fears have been heightened by talk from Environment Secretary Owen Paterson that so-called biodiversity offsetting – under which any new development which damages habitat would require a bigger or better area to be created – could help balance environmental protection with the need for development.
Dartmoor National Park Authority met on Friday to consider its response to the latest proposals from Government which would “introduce greater flexibility for changes of use without needing formal planning permission, supporting the high street and rural communities, providing new housing, developing more free school and contribution to the provision of child care”.
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But the move, which the Government could introduce as early as April next year, would also ease restrictions on converting agricultural buildings to residential use.
A report to members said “the wholesale relaxation of planning controls” would “completely undermine the principles of sustainability and the appropriate location of development”.
It said: “Whilst there is some merit in some minor relaxation on controls between uses in larger urban areas it is clear that the implications are not the same for small rural areas or settlements.
“What works well in cities and large towns will not necessarily transfer to rural locations and smaller settlements.
“The national park authority has at its core, issues of sustainability both in terms of protection of the landscape and in supporting appropriate economic growth which does not damage the reason why the area was officially designated.
“The authority already exercises control in a sympathetic way towards development and is able to channel development to the most suitable places. The authority already approves just under 90% of all application submitted.
“The changes proposed now, particularly in relation to new dwellings in place of agricultural buildings, will not in the long term benefit the protection and conservation of the landscape.”
After the meeting, authority chairman Bill Hitchins the proposals had “big implications” for the national park which “hadn’t been thought through”.
Unrestricted conversion of farm buildings risked “changing the character of the landscape” as well as creating housing which was unaffordable for local people and second homes which would contribute little to the local economy.
“Protecting the landscape is one of our prime responsibilities but we also have to promote the socio-economic aspects of the park as well,” he said. “We have to look at it from all angles – it is a very difficult balance to strike.
He said they were sending a “robust” response to the Government’s consultation, adding: “I hope the proposals will be considered a little more carefully because I don’t think they consulted particularly well before the officials let it loose.”
Conservationists are steeling themselves for a battle with Government over planning reforms.
Well-known Dartmoor campaigner Kate Ashbrook, who is general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, warned: “Campaign groups have got to be on their mettle and be ready to fight this. If the Government tries to undermine national park protection they are going to be in for a very rough ride.”