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Oxfordshire's most outstanding landscapes under pressure from housing development

Wednesday, 15 November 2017 12:01

New CPRE report highlights development pressures in Cotswolds, Chilterns and North Wessex Downs Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Government failing to protect England’s celebrated landscapes from mass housing developments.

CPRE’s research shows almost 15,500 houses approved in Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in the past five years despite their ‘protected’ status.

A new report published today by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) shows there has been an 82% increase in new housing units given planning permission in England’s 34 AONBs in the past five years, despite repeated commitments by the Government to ‘maintain national protections for AONBs for the benefit of future generations’. This represents almost 15,500 housing units since 2012, while the number of housing planning applications has more than doubled in that time [1].

Although AONBs have the highest level of planning protection, CPRE’s report Beauty Betrayed: how reckless housing development threatens England’s AONBs shows a five-fold increase in the amount of AONB land set to be lost under concrete in these treasured landscapes.

Key findings for Oxfordshire include:

  • Of the eight AONBs under most pressure, three are in Oxfordshire - the North Wessex Downs, the Chilterns and the Cotswolds.  The latter tops the list with 62 housing schemes coming forward over the last five years.
  • The Cotswolds and High Weald AONBs have the highest number of appeals, accounting for 42% of all cases between them, and putting huge pressure on local authority and AONB resources. The cost of defending an appeal on a major housing scheme can run into tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of pounds.
  • The High Weald and Cotswolds AONBs saw the largest rise in units per year averages; 186 units to 895 units and 217 units to 635 units respectively.
  • A case study of a housing development in Burford, within the Cotswolds AONB, shows how permissions for housing developments on exception sites appears to have attracted additional development proposals made worse by the allocation of the site in the reviewed Local Plan. Rural exception sites should not be a mechanism for opening up new areas for large scale housing development, especially in AONB landscapes where large scale housing development require rigorous assessments.

Helen Marshall, Director, CPRE Oxfordshire said: “This shows the importance of taking into account the cumulative impact of development. Our AONBs are our most precious landscapes and we must avoid them being undermined in dribs and drabs.

"The report will be of particular interest in West Oxfordshire where there are a number of applications for development in the AONB due to be decided in the next month.

"It is also extremely relevant in the North Wessex Downs area, where the Vale of White Horse District Council are proposing 1,000 houses at Harwell, despite previous proposals being rejected by a planning inspector.”

The report is based on research commissioned by CPRE [2], and includes data from Glenigan, data specialists on the UK construction industry. It shows clear evidence that housing developers are applying increasing pressure on local authorities to build new homes on AONBs by exploiting poorly defined and conflicting national planning policy.

CPRE’s report also shows that the pressure on local authorities is set to increase, with applications for a further 12,741 homes in AONBs currently awaiting decision. Based on the 2016/17 housing approval rate of 64%, this could mean a further 8,154 units, resulting in a total of 23,639 units being approved in AONBs since 2012.

Unsurprisingly, pressure for development within AONBs – defined by the number of applications, approvals and housing units – is highest in the South East and South West. In these areas, just eight AONBs account for 74% of all housing applications and 79% of all approvals from 2012-2017. 

Emma Marrington, CPRE Senior Rural Policy Campaigner, said:

“What is, in effect, a sell-off of AONBs is surely among the worst examples of misguided housing policy, where the drive to build more houses, any houses, no matter how unaffordable, to meet housing targets, is at the cost of our most beautiful landscapes.

“While CPRE advocates the building of right homes in the right places, AONBs are definitely not the right place. On top of this, current development on AONBs shows little evidence that what’s built will actually help solve the housing crisis, which is more to do with affordability than lack of land.”

England’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) cover 15% of the country. Their origins stem from the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, presented as a gift to the nation for its war-time sacrifices.

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) says that: ‘Great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty in AONBs, which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty.’ Government policy also allows housing targets to be lower in designated areas and recommends that ‘major developments’, including housing schemes, should be refused except in ‘exceptional circumstances’. However, both of these terms are poorly defined, creating loopholes that are often exploited by developers [3].

Although AONBs rely on local authorities and planning inspectors for their protection, the sheer weight of applications and appeals means that large and inappropriate housing developments are getting through as local authorities struggle under pressure from developers.


Based on the findings of the report, CPRE says that unless the Government and local authorities take action now, we are in danger of losing more AONB land to housing development and seeing a significant part of these beautiful landscapes disappear from our lives.

CPRE calls on the Government to:

• Amend the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to state a presumption against proposals for large housing developments in AONBs. It should be made clear, as it is for Green Belt, that demand for housing or the lack of a five-year supply is unlikely to justify large housing developments in AONBs.

• Include targets in the promised 25-year Environment Plan to ensure that development does not damage landscape quality. This would emphasise the importance of AONBs to the health, wellbeing and prosperity of the nation and set out how they will be better protected.

• Give all AONBs the statutory right to be consulted for major development proposals in their area, so that their advice is fully considered when determining a planning application.

• Reform the New Homes Bonus scheme for local authorities so that it no longer encourages large-scale housebuilding in AONBs.

• Publish annual statistics on the rate of development and other changes of land use in AONBs, as is already done for Green Belts.


[1] CPRE’s Beauty betrayed: how reckless housing development threatens England’s AONBs shows there has been a dramatic increase in new housing units given planning permission in England’s 34 AONBs in the past five years.
[2] D Dixon, N Sinden and T Crabtree, An Independent Review of Housing in England’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty 2012-17, 2017.
[3] National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-planning-policy-framework--2


Read more on the CPRE national website


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