Important views of Bridge

Don’t Judge. Image © copyright BridgeNature.org 2016

“An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is exactly what it says it is: a precious landscape whose distinctive character and natural beauty are so outstanding that it is in the nation’s interest to safeguard them”.
Kent Downs AONB Management Plan 2009-14

Readers will be aware that residents of Bridge are invited to an information event hosted by the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan Group, which will be held at the village hall on Saturday 21 January 2017. The event will feature a display of photographic views of the village and its surrounds taken by some local people. Residents will be asked to express preferences on which views they consider the most important, so that they can be listed for protection in the new Bridge Neighbourhood Plan.

Of course photographs of our beautiful landscape are lovely to look at, but photographs are just selective images reflecting the particular tastes of the photographer. Pictures alone do not enable us to know or judge which areas are important out in the real landscape either visually, ecologically, for agriculture or for biodiversity, so they must never be used to set one aspect of our protected countryside against another.

In fact, BridgeNature.org was asked some weeks ago to provide photographs for this event, but we declined to do so because Bridge is a rural village within two Conservation Areas and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and these legal designations mean that our village and its surrounds must, by law, be protected, both to preserve its character and its appearance. The law is quite clear: it’s not about choosing this view or that view, all our rural landscape must be protected because our area is special. The government’s National Planning Policy Framework 2012 states that AONBs are equivalent to National Parks in terms of their landscape quality, scenic beauty and their planning status (1).

Modern planning law imposes “a duty on relevant authorities, public bodies {including parish councils} and statutory undertakers to take account of the need to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of AONB landscapes when carrying out their statutory functions”. Kent Downs AONB Landscape Design Handbook 2005 reprinted 2006.

To the modern mind the term ‘natural beauty’ may sound rather vague and perhaps, to use a contemporary term, ‘cheesy’, but in 1949 it was written as shorthand for something far more important than just pretty scenery: it describes the visible presence of what today we would refer to as a healthy local ecology and rich biodiversity within a flourishing rural landscape. The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (which first defined AONBs) makes this clear “References in this Act to the preservation or conservation of the natural beauty of an area shall be construed as including references to the preservation or, as the case may be, the conservation of its flora, fauna and geological or physiographical features”. NPACA 1949, Section 114.

With this in mind we suggest that asking residents to express a preference for certain areas of our protected landscape by voting on some amateur snaps of Bridge is a gross misunderstanding of the requirements of a Neighbourhood Plan for a parish within an AONB. Some might call it crass. We understand that some Neighbourhood Plan Group members and their advisors have tried to ensure that, at the information event, public votes on the views will be restricted, so that only a limited number of views will be accepted. One suggestion was to force the vote to reduce an original display of twenty views down to six. Why should we only be allowed to value six views of our local landscape? Another suggestion was to ask residents to give the views a value on a sliding scale from ‘very important’, through ‘important’ to ‘not important at all’. In a designated AONB this has appalling implications.

We do not know which method has been chosen, it may be something different, but any attempt to prioritise or rank certain areas of our landscape against others is unacceptable: we must not let our AONB be judged in this way. To ensure that it is not, we ask all residents to spare just 15 minutes or so to attend the information event in the village hall on Saturday 21 January, between 10am and 1pm and we urge you to make it clear to the Bridge Neighbourhood Plan Group that we will not subject our local countryside to an ‘X Factor’ type popularity contest in the village hall, nor, as one committee advisor suggested, a competition for ‘Likes’ on Facebook. We wish to preserve ALL our greenfield land, ALL the scenic views it provides and ALL the flora and fauna which depend upon it. Under the laws governing an AONB nothing less is acceptable, anything else is a betrayal of its original designation.

(1) NPPF 2012. Paras. 14 footnote 9, 115 and 116

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