Natural England has imposed a 500m ‘exclusion zone’ and a 12.6km ‘zone of influence’ around Chiltern Beechwoods Special Area of Conservation (SAC) where mitigation will now be required for residential development. In a letter to the affected Councils, Natural England has advised that “significant recreational pressure” caused by nearby residents visiting the accessible honeypot site will be exacerbated by additional residential development being built.
The immediate effect of the announcement is that applications for new residential development in the affected areas cannot be approved until a strategic solution has been found to address the problem. As it stands, there is nothing in place to that end and although the regulator is open to ideas regarding mitigation measures, a resolution is unlikely to happen quickly. Therefore, developers are likely to see significant planning application delays, possibly over several months, and if the site happens to be within the 500m exclusion zone, this could well be the end of that project.
The consequence is wide reaching, with the area of influence covering parts of the following Local Planning Authorities:
For those of us that are familiar with similar issues associated with protected sites (for example, in the case of Thames Basin Heath Special Protection Area or the Burnham Beeches SAC), there is an obvious solution… the provision of Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspaces (SANGs) and the collection of Strategic Access Management and Monitoring (SAMM) payments, which act as avoidance and mitigation measures. A new gateway to the Ashridge Estate has also been suggested, although the details on what this would entail are not clear at this time.
The news follows a series of housing development moratoriums (caused by issues including phosphates, nitrates and water neutrality) and the situation is becoming all too familiar for those of us in and around the Home Counties. Whatever the way forward, the reality is that any avoidance and mitigation strategy will inevitably result in additional financial burdens on developers, potentially affecting the viability of proposals, which in turn could then reduce a site’s ability to provide much needed affordable housing.
Consequently, there is not much to rejoice about in this announcement. However, the silver lining is that it supports the pursuit of environmental protection and, given that there is an established mechanism working successfully elsewhere, we are hopeful that a similar approach should be able to be agreed without significant delay.
Jonathan Jarman, Associate