7km Ashdown Forest rule dropped but council says developers must prove plans will not harm forest

The Ashdown Forest 7km rule has been removed from Wealden District Council’s Core Strategy Local Plan.

It is this rule which has severely restricted building in Uckfield since it was introduced.

Following a hearing in the Court of Appeal, Wealden has agreed that the reference to the 7km zone and the specific reference requiring SANGS (Suitable Alternative Natural Green Spaces) and on-site visitor management measures will be removed from its Core Strategy Local Plan policy.

All other elements of the Core Strategy remain in place.

‘Court of Appeal decision on technical point’

The victory in the Court is not a “green light” for development to re-start.

The council said it does not mean the Forest is less important today as an environmentally protected site of European significance than it was yesterday.

7km

Ann Newton

Cllr Ann Newton, Wealden Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Planning, said: “This disappointing Court of Appeal decision is on a technical legal point.

“The Judge has not said that the policy is incorrect, rather that we had not explicitly considered the alternatives.

Damage to the Ashdown Forest

“In practical terms the appeal outcome will mean that applicants will still have to prove, to the satisfaction of the council, that their development will not be causing damage to the Forest.”

“The council is already considering its detailed planning policies to protect the ecology and the wildlife of Ashdown Forest as part of its production of the Wealden Local Plan which is due to go out for public consultation in the autumn.

 Habitat regulations

“All planning applications will continue to be subject to the Habitat Regulations which protect the Ashdown Forest Special Protection Area.  The 7km policy has provided guidance which we have now had to remove.  In practical terms the appeal outcome will mean that applicants will still have to prove, to the satisfaction of the Council, that their development will not be causing damage to the Forest.

“The Council is already considering its detailed planning policies to protect the ecology and the wildlife of Ashdown Forest as part of its production of the Wealden Local Plan which is due to go out for public consultation in the autumn.”

1,000 new homes approved in Uckfield

“The Council’s members and officers recognise the need to deliver housing and recent planning approvals including 1,000 new homes in Uckfield prove this.

“But we also need to balance this with protecting Wealden’s high quality environment.  This is exactly why we are making significant investment in delivering SANGS and SAMMS [Strategic Access Management and Monitoring Strategy], which are now starting to come on stream, as a key strategy for enabling development in the north of the district.”

The council said it would continue to be open to all suggestions for suitable mitigation measures to protect the forest for those applications which are deemed to require them and will be consulting with Natural England on appropriate approaches.

How it will work

Any new planning application will be screened under section 61 of the Habitat Regulations and if it is determined that the application either alone, or in combination with other factors, is likely to result in a significant effect on the Special Protection Area, then an appropriate assessment will be required to determine the implications for that site in view of the site’s conservation objectives.

Where the implications for the site are not known or it is uncertain, then the precautionary approach must by law be applied.

It will be the duty of Wealden District Council to determine if the application will have a likely significant effect on the integrity of the SPA and whether suitable mitigation measures can be applied to mitigate the impact.

Where an appropriate assessment is required, applicants will be required to provide the relevant information in order for the Council to undertake an appropriate assessment including any required proposals for mitigation measures.

Timeline:

October 2012:  After a Public Examination, Wealden’s Core Strategy Local Plan, including the 7km protection area, approved as sound in the Planning Inspector’s report.  It was subsequently adopted by Wealden District Council and the South Downs National Park Authority in February 2013.

Numerous planning appeals have been made against Wealden’s refusal to grant planning permission on the grounds of the 7km protection area.  On each occasion independent Planning Inspectors have upheld Wealden’s decision.

February 2014: The Core Strategy Local Plan was subject to a Judicial Review brought by a consortium of local landowners, Ashdown Forest Economic Development.

The High Court upheld Wealden’s Core Strategy Local Plan and the policy for the 7km environmental protection area:  Mr Justice Sales dismissed claims that the council had breached EU regulations by not considering alternatives to the 7km protection zone around  Ashdown Forest as in his opinion the principled reasoning and evidence to justify the decision was clearly set out in the relevant environmental report.

 October 2014: Lord Justice Lewison gave Ashdown Forest Economic Development leave to Appeal on the sole ground that the Council had failed to explicitly consider reasonable alternatives to the 7km zone.

July 2015:  The Court of Appeal rules that the Council had not explicitly considered suitable alternatives to the 7km zone of influence and the mitigation proposed within that zone and that it was required to do so under regulation 12 of the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Regulations.

The Court of Appeal’s conclusion, “arrived at with a degree of reluctance”, has resulted in it being agreed that the reference to the 7km zone and the specific reference requiring SANGS and on-site visitor management measures will be removed from WDC Policy WCS12.

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