In recent months a huge new building development scheme has been proposed for Highland Court Farm on the Bekesbourne Downs in our local AONB. Within it there is a very substantial element of sports complex development included. Indeed, the developer indicates that a new home for Canterbury Rugby Club is a fundamental part of the plan, along with club and pitch facilities for other ball sports. While building development in an AONB is always controversial, traditional sports pitches may appear less so, on the grassy surface at least. The original terms of Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty designation do indicate some conditional support for recreation; so does that mean modern sports pitches and clubhouse complexes comply as an appropriate use of land within an AONB?
From the outset AONBs were envisioned as working conservation areas, the work being farming and forestry, and something close to the original description of the designation is set out in the Countryside Agency’s 1991 Policy Statement on AONBs:
“The primary purpose of the designation is to conserve and enhance natural beauty.
In pursuing the primary purpose of the designation, account should be taken of the needs of agriculture, forestry and other rural industries and of the economic and social needs of local communities. Particular regard should be paid to promoting sustainable forms of social and economic development that in themselves conserve and enhance the environment.
Recreation is not an objective of the designation, but the demand for recreation should be met insofar as this is consistent with the conservation of natural beauty and the needs of agriculture, forestry and other uses.”
While this policy discusses meeting a requirement for recreation, it means something rather different from pitch activities such as football, hockey, tennis and rugby: the policy was clearly intended to provide for activities such as hiking, cycling, horse riding and fishing, all for the benefit of enjoying the beautiful rural scenery of the AONB. Quite obviously it was not condoning the building of sports pitches, stands, stadiums, membership clubs and car parks, all of which would, by their very nature, interfere with the needs of agriculture and forestry while despoiling the rural scenery of the AONB.
Those local people who wish to spend their leisure time chasing balls, already have plenty of facilities in which to do so, but our local village recreation grounds are underused by local people for traditional amateur sports, suggesting there is limited demand. Those who have most to gain from the new facilities proposed, would be commercial sports clubs wishing to expand, and they would draw supporters and participants from all over Kent, possibly to be joined by sporting opponents from far beyond. This would not be appropriate or welcome here: valuable farmland in our AONB is not the place in which to create showpiece sports facilities for everyone in Kent, either for the sake of those few who are unsatisfied with what they already have, or to enrich those who would exploit the land for their own commercial interests.