Planning matters

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Bracknell Forest Council Consultation on Draft Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area Supplementary Planning Document
With a Zone of Influence over 11 local authorities[1] within Hampshire, Surrey and Berkshire, the Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area (SPA) has had a considerable effect on planning decisions on relevant sites, ever since its designation in 2005. Balancing the need to protect this area of international importance for nature conservation and its inherent sensitivity to impact from human activity against the pressing need for new development and housing in the area has created challenges for developers and local authorities alike.  However, new draft guidance in Bracknell Forest, which is currently out for consultation until 19 February 2018, may provide some clarity for all parties moving forward.   The Thames Basin Heaths SPA forms part of Natura 2000, a pan-European network of sites of international importance for nature conservation, established under the European Community Wild Birds Directive 2009/147/EC and Habitats Directive 92/43/EEC. The SPA is one of the South East's most important natural assets for lowland heath, and supports important populations of Dartford Warbler, Nightjar and Woodlark – all are vulnerable ground-nesting birds.   Woodlark Source: RSPB An increase in human population and the numbers of visitors to a protected area can give rise to a number of different types of impact on sensitivities e.g. trampling, vandalism, and increased predation from domestic cats.   To prevent impacts, and under the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010, no plan or project which may affect a European Site can be undertaken, unless it can be shown that there will be no adverse impact on the integrity of that site, either alone or in combination with other plans or projects. If an adverse impact is identified, then the project cannot go ahead unless there are no alternative solutions, or there are imperative reasons for overriding public interest (‘IROPI’).   In relation to the Thames Heath SPA, in 2005 Natural England (NE) conducted research which indicated that the then existing level of recreational pressure was having a detrimental effect on the three species of birds for which the SPA was designated. As a response to this and the level of housebuilding expected in the Thames Basin Heaths area, NE objected to all planning applications for a net increase in residential development within 5km of the SPA and imposed stringent requirements on all prospective developers.  This led to the SPA designation being seen by some as posing a significant constraint on development within the area. Source: Telegraph Bracknell Forest Council is one of the authorities affected by the tension between demand for new development in this rapidly growing area of the South East and the need to protect the highly sensitive habitats and species within its administrative boundary.  The authority includes the Broadmoor to Bagshot Heaths Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the Sandhurst to Owlsmoor Bogs/Heaths SSSI; also a large proportion of Bracknell lies within 5km of one of the boundaries of the Thames Heath SPA and is therefore covered by some of the restrictions highlighted above.   Up until now, the authority has sought, via a number of different policy documents (e.g. the adopted Bracknell Forest Thames Basin Heath SPA SPD (2012)) to address the issue but these have failed to ensure a consistent approach.  This has led to a lack of certainty and an often slow site-by-site negotiation to identify appropriate mitigation for each proposal.   To address this uncertainty, the authority is currently consulting on the Draft Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area Avoidance and Mitigation Supplementary Planning Document (January 2018) (hereafter referred to as the ‘Draft SPA DPD’).[2] Once adopted, the Draft SPA DPD will replace the adopted Bracknell Forest Thames Basin Heath SPA SPD (2012) and it will be used to help to determine planning applications (as a material consideration), as part of the Council’s Local Development Framework.   The approaches outlined in the Draft SPA SPD are the result of a longstanding effort to streamline the assessment of development proposals in the SPA Zone of Influence. In addition, the new draft guidance aims to provide greater clarity to applicants on the types of suitable mitigation measures in the form of Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (‘SANG’) and Strategic Access Management and Monitoring (‘SAMM’)  - required to remove the potential for adverse impacts on the SPA.  The draft sets out the following broad strategy:-     In addition, whilst the adopted Thames Basin Heaths SPA (March 2012) identified 7 sites suitable for strategic SANGS in Bracknell Forest, the suitability of 5 new strategic SANG sites (with an estimated area totaling 26 hectares) has been agreed with Natural England, as outlined within the Draft SPA SPD.   The draft guidance notes that the majority of new housing development in Bracknell Forest up to 2034 will be located within Zone B (between 400m and 5km of the SPA).  It also provides a record of current and emerging SANGs and SAMM strategies in the area that contributions will be put towards.   The Draft SPA SPD is considered to represent a step towards a more transparent and guidance-led process in which prospective applicants are aware of what will be required of their development proposals from the outset. Hopefully this should facilitate and speed up planning decisions in this area of significant housing demand, whilst also protecting the very sensitive environment and species that, to a great extent, attract people to live in the area. Lichfields has an extensive track record of providing planning; environmental impact assessment; and plan-led land promotion services for development within the Thames Valley and other environmentally sensitive locations. For more information on our experience or to discuss any potential development opportunities, please do not hesitate to contact us.   [1] Waverley BC, Guildford BC, Surrey Heath BC, Woking BC, Bracknell Forest BC, Hart DC, Wokingham   BC, Elmbridge BC, Runnymede BC, The Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, Rushmoor BC. [2] Consultation on the Bracknell Forest Draft Thames Basin Heaths Special Protection Area Supplementary Planning Document (January 2018) is currently until 5.00 PM on Monday 19th February 2018. [3] The ‘Zone of Influence’ denotes the area from 400m from the perimeter of the SPA to 5km from the perimeter of the SPA (Bracknell Thames Basin Heaths SPA SPD, 2012).  

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In with the old, in with the new – re-using and redeveloping Reading Prison
‘Fixing our broken housing market’, the Government’s Housing White Paper puts great emphasis on brownfield sites as priority locations for residential development. Aligned with this is the Housing and Planning Act 2016’s new secondary legislation for brownfield land registers and for ‘permission in principle’. The Government’s focus therefore is very much on promoting delivering new homes on brownfield sites. However, many of the brownfield sites which remain vacant or underused are difficult to develop and heavily constrained, and present interesting challenges to realise their development potential. As part of a wider Government initiative to provide over 3,000 houses on the sites of several former prisons, it is anticipated that the disused Reading Prison building will be redeveloped. As a brownfield site in a prime location in Reading, but with significant heritage value, the prison demonstrates both the opportunities and difficulties that arise when considering their re-use and/ or redevelopment.   The Prison has recently shown its popularity as a temporary tourist attraction. It was the centrepiece to the highly successful Reading Year of Culture 2016 with an exhibition held in tribute to author, poet and playwright Oscar Wilde, one of its most renowned inmates. The exhibition attracted around 50,000 visitors before closing at the end of last year. Decommissioned in 2013, the current prison structure was opened in 1844, and lies within Reading Abbey – which was founded in 1121. Wilde, Prisoner C.3-3, spent two years incarcerated there between 1895 and 1897, following which he wrote his last work ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’(1898). The Grade II listed building also sits within a designated Area of Archaeological Potential; it costs an estimated £20,000 a month to maintain, following its closure and despite standing empty.   Portrait of Oscar Wilde in his former cell Source: BBC The Prison forms a key feature in the town’s historic landscape and it is anticipated that development proposals will serve as an ‘anchor’ within Reading’s emerging Abbey Quarter. The prison stands alongside several other structures which are designated as scheduled ancient monuments or listed buildings, including Abbey Church (the burial place of King Henry I); a Tudor royal residence and Jane Austen’s school. Given the historical context of the site, addressing heritage and archaeological constraints will be essential. The Reading Prison Outline Development Framework (2015) highlighted a number of issues which will need to be taken into consideration by any forthcoming proposals for the site. Subsequently the site has been included in Reading Borough Council’s Draft Local Plan (April 2017). Policy CR13a Reading Prison states that the “building would be used for residential, commercial offices or a hotel, and could include some cultural or heritage element that draws on its significance”. It suggests that the conversion of the Prison could result in the creation of 65-90 dwellings. This figure is significantly lower than the 300 homes’ estimate that Reading MP Rob Wilson is reported as having suggested ‘could be built’ on the site in November 2015. It is clear any proposals for the site will have to be sensitively designed to ensure the conservation of its historic integrity. However, as demonstrated through the example of Kingston Prison, Portsmouth, proposals such as this present a unique opportunity to conserve integral heritage assets whilst delivering much-needed housing.   These discussions come at a critical time for Reading, which needs 699 new homes a year until 2036 in order to meet current housing need1. A scheme of the scale suggested promises to help in contributing to alleviating local housing pressures.   Reading Abbey, Berkshire Source: BBC Whilst Reading Borough Council have already adopted the Outline Development Framework (in March 2015), Lord Keen of Elie, Lords spokesman for the Ministry of Justice, stated on 14 December 2016 that a new planning brief for the redevelopment of the Prison is expected to be taken to Reading Borough Council for approval towards the latter half of the year. Meanwhile conservation work on the Abbey Ruins and Inner Gateway has already begun.    Finding a way to deliver new homes at the Prison would prove a fascinating and challenging scheme. It has the potential to introduce a new use into one of Reading’s best known heritage assets, conserving for future generations its important history. Lichfields has an extensive track record of helping to achieve planning permission and listed building consent for development within the Thames Valley and in sensitive heritage and conservation locations. For more information on our experience or to discuss any potential development opportunities relating to heritage assets, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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