Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty
- WAG supports the significant public interest in declaring the Churnet Valley an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
- At present the District Council fails to recognise the public’s obvious enthusiasm.
- WAG supports Councillor Linda Malyon of Ipstones bidding for AONB status.
There is substantial pressure in the Staffordshire Moorlands for it to be declared an area of outstanding natural beauty. That pressure is often manifest in news stories and letters in the press and wider media. It has also been raised by residents at public and other meetings [e.g. meeting of SMDC Cabinet 15/11/2011] and is also to be found in written representations to SMDC e.g. submissions by Churnet Valley Conservation Society regarding the Core Strategy and Masterplan documentation and those of various residents including those of Mr Paul Denning with his comments on the Core Strategy Revision ref CSR/23 of 30 Jan 12 and CSR/62 of 2 Feb 12 who gives a lucid and well argued submission in support of the adoption of AONB status, which WAG endorses.
A careful analysis of the documentation in the public domain and the structure and language of that documentation, linked to personal testimony, gives a clear impression that SMDC planners have set their face against supporting a proposal that AONB status should be sought.
The language and reasoning arguing against seeking such a status is both illuminating and at the same time ‘unreasonable’ in the sense of the legal test of ‘reasonableness’. At a workshop meeting at the Nicholson Institute on 15th March 2011, following on from a ‘formatted school-like exercise’, a brief question and answer session was permitted. Mr John Higgins, a resident of Old Furnace/Oakamoor and a longstanding and ardent supporter of the desire to protect the special qualities of the Churnet Valley asked the panel of officers from SMDC why the Authority was not in support of an application for ANOB status. Two of those Officers where Mr Perry Wardle and Mr Gavin Clarke. Mr Clarke chose to answer Mr Higgins question. He is reliably reported as saying that ‘such a designation would be inappropriate because it would not be in the interest of the commercial enterprises that SMDC had been in discussion with and might restrict the plans SMDC had for the Churnet Valley’. Witnesses were startled at Mr Clarkes’ response and more so by the sharp kick delivered by Mr Wardle to the legs of Mr Clarke as he displayed such candour. So strong was the impression caused by this happening that at least one Councillor made a contemporaneous note of the happening. Other persons present testified to the facts of the incident shortly afterwards.
It should be noted that there are outstanding FOIA applications seeking to uncover the dates, times, details and written records of meetings between SMDC and representatives and commercial ‘Key Stakeholders’ spoken to or consulted with during the preparation of the Core Strategy Document or the CV Masterplan. It is noted in passing that the typed notes of the meeting of the 15/3/11 at the Nicholson Institute do not record the details or content of the question and answer session about AONB status. Before analysing further the commitment or otherwise of SMDC planners to supporting an application for AONB status it would be instructive to review the history of the documentation on this topic to avoid coming to a premature or erroneous conclusion.
- Para 6.12.6 of the report of the L.D.F. Working Party dated 9/2/2009 states ‘There is a suggestion that the Churnet Valley be designated as an AONB however this would clearly have significant implications for its future management and development. It is considered that it would be inappropriate at this stage for Council to give any commitment to such a move.’[ our emphasis]
- In a report to the Service Delivery Overview and Scrutiny Panel dated 9th.November 2011, SMDC Regeneration Services under the Regeneration Manager Mr Perry Wardle commenting upon the option to seek AONB status for the Churnet Valley opined, inter alia, that,
- The methodology used for assessing areas being considered for designation is complex.
- There are lengthy procedural requirements necessary to achieve AONB status.
- Resources are needed to manage AONB status and could be significant.
- Designation as an AONB would place an additional duty on the Local Authority to have regard to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the AONB when exercising or performing any function.
- AONB designation does not prevent development but gives the local authority greater scope to resist inappropriate development.
- Other options are available.
- If the above are considered together with the remarks made by Mr Gavin Clarke at the Nicholson Institute on 15th March 2011 and the evidence revealed by the letter of 22/1/2010 sent by HOW Planning LLP to the Head of Regeneration Services on behalf of Laver Leisure [Oakamoor] Ltd, evidence begins to emerge that the opposition demonstrated by the above documents may be motivated more by a level of commitment to those agencies and ‘Key Stakeholders’ whom, through their agents, began shaping the Core Strategy and the Churnet Valley Masterplan Options Report long before there was any public knowledge that the process was already underway.
If such is a reasonable interpretation of events, it sets in context the requests made by HOW Planning on behalf of its clients Laver Leisure [Oakamoor] Ltd. as long ago as 22/1/2010. It may be helpful in this factual analysis to remind ourselves of some of the salient points made in it, namely,
- ‘We are very keen for the Core Strategy to provide sufficient flexibility to enable the Moneystone Quarry site to come forward for future development without having to overcome significant policy boundaries which may be set in the Core Strategy’ [our additional emphasis].
- By 22/1/2010 there had taken place ‘A number of meetings with the Local Planning Authority at varying levels’.
- ‘It is therefore requested that the Core Strategy vision and objectives reflect the important* contribution to the wider area that can be gained from developing the Moneystone Quarry. Furthermore the emerging policies should incorporate sufficient flexibility to allow the site to come forward for development.’[our additional emphasis]
*Note ‘important’ to their client but not residents of Whiston or Moneystone who did not and could not have known about it.
A serious question is raised by the above factual recital.
It would be a perfectly legitimate conclusion to reach on the basis of the above that SMDC planners…
- Have indeed shaped the Core Strategy document and the CV Masterplan Options Report to give effect to the request made by HOW Planning LLP on behalf of their clients Laver Leisure [Oakamoor] Ltd., ‘to provide sufficient flexibility to enable Moneystone Quarry site to come forward for future development without having to overcome significant policy boundaries’ [ e.g. AONB status ]
- It would set in context and give added emphasis to the remarks made by Mr Clarke at the Nicholson Institute on 15/3/2011.
- It would explain to some extent why commercial ‘Key Stakeholders’ were identified early and given preferential treatment over the residents of the Churnet valley in the process of consultation.
- It may explain why SMDC did not, at an early stage consult with WAG as a residents group.
- It may explain the apparent opposition to AONB status displayed in the documents referred to above
NB – If any of the above conclusions are incorrect it is always open to the SMDC to comply with the FOIA applications that have been made in requests to disclose the notes and details of those ‘numbers of meetings with the Local Planning Authority at varying levels that [by 22/1/2010] had already taken place’.
Antecedent Factual Issues.
1. The Churnet Valley Masterplan Options Report was put before the SMDC Cabinet by Councillor Hart.
2 Upon specific invitation by the Chair Councillor Ralphs, residents in the public gallery, who otherwise had no right to contribute to the debate, were invited to comment. They did so. They pointed out, inter alia, that there was a direct contradiction between the contents of the Options Report and remarks made by Councillor Hart as to the purpose and usage of ‘Village Conversations’ to inform the shaping of the Options in the Report and the statements of Mr Gavin Clarke of the SMDC Planning Department at Village Conversations that they ‘had nothing to do with the Core Strategy or the Churnet Valley Masterplan’.
3 Cabinet also acknowledged that the SMDC had received a request under the Freedom of Information Act in relation to the ‘evidence’ base that purportedly supported the findings of the Options Report that remain [then and now] unanswered.
4 Despite the concerns expressed by Residents at the meeting of Cabinet on 15th November 2011 about the process, contents, ‘evidence’ and conclusions of the Masterplan, Cabinet determined to approve the document for public consultation. It is submitted that the decision was defective and unreasonable.
5 Cabinet gave assurances that the outstanding requests for disclosure would be met. At the time of the preparation of this document those assurances have not been met.
6 The Churnet Valley Masterplan Options Report was released to the public on 16th January 2012. On the same date some 800 pages of what is purported to be ‘evidence’ was posted on the SMDC website. The first public consultation was at Ipstones the next day, 17th January 2012, and other consultations are ongoing. Residents without access to a computer are disadvantaged by such a process.
7 The Options Report puts five options to the public for consideration. It does not justify why only five are chosen, although it concedes that a further option could be a combination of the five selected.