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Countryside life: why Kent deserves AONB status

PUBLISHED: 11:33 19 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:33 20 February 2013

Countryside life: why Kent deserves AONB status

Countryside life: why Kent deserves AONB status

Who in Kent would dispute that we live in a beautiful county? But what has Kent done to deserve the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) designation for the High Weald and Kent Downs?

A natural beauty

Who in Kent would dispute that we live in a beautiful county? But what has Kent done to deserve the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) designation for the High Weald and Kent Downs?

Whether or not a particular landscape is worthy to be singled out for its aesthetic qualities is subjective. The effect, however, is to conserve the appearance of a particular area.

Kent is of course not unique within the south east in boasting AONB status for swathes of its landscape. The nearby Surrey Hills and Sussex Downs have also been deemed worthy of the designation, and further afield, East Hampshire, Chichester Harbour, the Isle of Wight and the Chilterns are AONBs.

AONB is the highest landscaping designation, set up by the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949, and there are 34 in England and Wales. Each comes with its own dedicated staff who work to a management plan that identifies the features and nature conservation interest of the landscape.

Taking the High Weald as our local example, this is an area which itself stretches way beyond our county borders. It is a vast historic landscape straddling part of East and West Sussex, Kent and Surrey, sitting between the North and South Downs. It covers some 1,461 square kilometres, of which 58.5 per cent is farmed, and three per cent of the population is employed in farming.

The High Weald was, in the 15th and 16th centuries, an industrial landscape. The wood for the furnaces used to smelt iron was harvested indiscriminately in the area until Elizabeth I introduced legislation to limit the felling of timber to retain sufficient trees for ship building.

The landscape softened when iron smelting moved to the north of England, leaving in its wake a landscape of cleared woodland, which has developed into the gentler landscape we know today. I suppose this could call into question whether it is truly a natural landscape.

In planning speak, planning authorities are obliged to take the AONB designation into account when assessing applications, as they have a statutory duty to conserve or enhance the natural beauty of the landscape. Underlying the policy is the requirement to meet the need for quiet enjoyment of the countryside, and to have regard for the interests of those who live and work there. While this is laudable in theory, I have some reservations about landscape designations in general.

AONBs are not deemed to be suitable places for large scale development. Yet the designation covers such a wide area that it is bound to include plenty of indifferent landscape, which in normal circumstances could provide the opportunity for development which is beneficial from an economic and social point of view.

A recent case in the south east has seen a large area of land designated as a possible site for more than 1,000 houses with community facilities in a beautiful valley with ecological interest. The site has been chosen as a result of its location outside an AONB.

Like so much of planning policy, AONBs are like the curates egg: good in parts.

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