Special Landscape Areas: Landscape Conservation or Confusion in the Town and Country Planning System?

Article excerpt

This paper assesses the efficacy and relevance of the Special Landscape Area (SLA) designation - a nonstatutory planning designation within the British planning system. SLAs cover significant areas of countryside, yet they remain neglected in planning research. The research reported here uses primary and secondary data to allow a critical assessment of SLAs across Wales. The results reveal confusion and contradiction within contemporary guidance and development plan policy highlighting an emerging discourse between planners who seek to protect landscape using SLAs and those who advocate a more holistic approach. It is concluded that the emphasis on designation as a prime tool for landscape planning is outdated and in need of urgent reform towards a more multifunctional assessment of landscape character.

Special Landscape Areas (SLAs) are one of several non-statutory local landscape designations administered by local authorities in Britain. In theory such nonstatutory designations have their distinctive philosophies, aims and scope that sits within the lower tier of the designation hierarchy. Although they vary considerably across the landscapes of the constituent parts of Britain, statutory landscape designations are at the head of the hierarchy. England, for instance, has statutory legislation for National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and Green Belts are designated in Statutory Development Plans, while Wales has no Green Belts and Scotland has only recently legislated for National Parks, with National Scenic Areas performing a comparable role to AONBs. Such statutory designations have been subject to detailed research and empirical study, whereas the non-statutory designations have been largely ignored. The research reported in this paper was designed to redress this imbalance and help uncover more information on SLAs in particular and the utility of non-statutory designations more generally.

Since recent national policy guidance advocates caution in the use of SLAs, and an earlier study focusing on Ceredigion County Council in Mid-Wales had raised serious questions about the effectiveness and value of SLAs, the present research sought to validate and develop these findings within a wider Welsh context (Countryside Agency and Scottish Natural Heritage, 2002; Welsh Assembly Government, 2002; Scott, 2001). The paper begins with a review of the wider context of landscape designations and the planning framework within which SLAs operate.

The core of the paper focuses on the results from a key informant survey of planners and landscape managers across all 22 unitary authorities in Wales, together with documentary analyses of development plans. Three key questions are explored in detail - the robustness and soundness of the SLA designation; its perception by local planners and other stakeholders; and its operation and enforcement in local planning policies.

Landscape designations and the planning system

Shifting values and perceptions of landscape have played a critical role in shaping and defining the landscape and culture of rural Britain (Gold and Burgess, 1982; Moore-Colyer, 2002). Historically, landscape matters were the preserve of the professional and educated elite, who significantly influenced the development and focus of landscape designations and protection in Britain in the early twentieth century with a predilection towards upland and wild landscapes (Shoard, 1982a). The roots of this elitist and professional interest can be traced back to the nineteenth century with the emergence of the Picturesque and Romantic movements (Pepper, 1996). Planning policy formulation was developed with the influential Dower and Hobhouse reports and three pieces of primary post-war legislation - the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, the Agriculture Act 1947 and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Although these acts created the framework within which the English and Welsh landscape designations were to evolve, they also secured the separate pathways and subsequent institutional structures between landscape and nature conservation (Cullingworth and Nadin, 1997). …