Stretching from the River Thames in south Oxfordshire up through Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire to Hitchin in Hertfordshire, the Chilterns is one of England’s most prized natural landscapes.
It is one of 34 AONBs that together cover 14% of England. They are protected by law under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 – legislation created to conserve and enhance their natural beauty.
According to the government’s own National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), planning permission for all “major infrastructure” in an AONB must be refused unless it is in the public interest and there are “exceptional circumstances” justifying development. So why, given these protections, did Central Bedfordshire Council last month approve planning permission for a 4.4km single and dual carriageway between Luton and Lower Sundon?
National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949
Against the advice of Natural England and the Environment Agency, the council decided that a 1.6km stretch of the new M1-A6 bypass should carve through the northern part of the Chilterns AONB, in between two blocks of ancient woodland.
Chair of the not-for-profit group Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) Bedfordshire Gerry Sansom said he was worried that the council’s decision could weaken the protections afforded to AONBs.
“The precedent this is setting is that development on the AONB can be overridden. AONBs are not local conservation areas, they have a national standing as well – but it shows the government isn’t being true to their word in terms of protections,” he said.
In its decision to approve the £60m road scheme, Central Bedfordshire Council said that “exceptional circumstances” under paragraph 172 of the NPPF applied because the bypass would help the government deliver its vision for the Oxford-Cambridge (Ox-Cam) “growth arc” – a £5.5bn project to create a “brain-belt” comprising one million new homes as well as new road and rail transport links, by 2050.
But the planning officer for the Chilterns Conservation Board – one of only two such boards in the country – disagrees with the council’s logic.
Dr Lucy Murfet said the council had failed to satisfy the “exceptional circumstances test” because two alternative routes avoiding the AONB were available to them.
But according to Murfet, ”the planning committee was advised by officers that they could only consider the route in front of them, not alternative routes outside the AONB.
“This was flawed as the presence of alternatives should be part of the assessment of a major development in an AONB, as per paragraph 172 of the NPPF”.
The council believes the new M1-A6 road link will help facilitate 4,000 new dwellings in the district and create a minimum of 20 hectares of employment land as part of the Ox-Cam proposals. Funding for the road includes £32.75m from the South East Midlands Local Enterprise Partnership (SEMLEP) – a partnership between businesses and local authorities intended to drive economic growth.
But Natural England has warned that the bypass would have a “significant impact” on the purposes of designation of the Chilterns AONB. The regulator said the road would bring “noise, air pollution, light pollution and visual intrusion” to the protected area.
Murfet is particularly worried about the effects the new road will have on the threatened barbastelle bat, given the fact it will sunder its foraging territory of Sundon Wood and George Wood.
“This is one of the UK’s rarest animals...the [road] will separate and fragment the two habitats and put bats in mortal danger from high sided vehicles, noise and lighting,” said Murfet.
To mitigate potential dangers to wildlife, the council attached planning conditions to the road project prior to its buildout, including artificial flight lines for bats, mammal underpasses, hedgerow planting and appropriate habitat for great crested newts.
But Natural England has slammed the council’s proposed mitigation measures. By scrutinising the council’s environmental statement, prepared by consultants Jacobs, Natural England said it was “unclear how the proposals demonstrate[d] biodiversity net gain overall — particularly in combination with the North of Luton allocation—in any measurable way”.
It added that “measurable biodiversity net gains for a major infrastructure project” were “essential” to get a project of this nature over the line.
Sian Griffiths, director at planning consultants RCA Regeneration, said: “Once [AONBs] are gone, that’s it, they’re very scarce. If another developer proposes something like this again in a similar situation, they’re going to cite this planning decision as an example”.
Last year, ex-government transport special adviser Julian Glover advocated in his landscapes review that the Chilterns AONB be awarded National Park status due to its natural beauty. That promotion could now be under threat, warns Sansom.
But SEMLEP’s communications manager, Karen Clarke, said that the route has been planned and designed to “limit impact on both the area’s protected ancient woodlands and, of course, the AONB”.
She said: “SEMLEP is working closely with government colleagues and the relevant local councils on this scheme. This is a Department for Transport retained project and the secretary of state will make the final decision on the transport scheme, based on the project’s full business case”.
The final decision is expected to be made later this year.