Decision day could be close for Dedham Vale AONB campaigners

Keeping watch over proceedings: the Wormingford dragon (pic Cathy Shelbourne)

The gentle landscape of Dedham Vale
Striking field patterns in the Brett Valley

One of the most delightful areas of Essex lies on the northern fringe of the county on its boundary with Suffolk.
Much of this landscape is incorporated within the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Beauty, a designation that a group of campaigners believe should be extended north-west towards Sudbury, strengthening the protection of a broader stretch of countryside.
CPRE Essex is in full support of the campaign and in this article Robert Erith, a vice-president of our branch and committee member of the Colne-Stour Countryside Association, details how it has progressed and where it is now.    

For at least the last 40 years the Colne-Stour Countryside Association has campaigned for the parishes of Bures Hamlet, Mount Bures, Bures St Mary, Alphamstone and Lamarsh to be included in the Dedham Vale AONB.
In 1978, the Countryside Commission approved the designation of a potential AONB for the land between its existing boundary and Bures, which remained until 1992.
This beautiful countryside was painted by both Thomas Gainsborough, who was born and raised in Sudbury, and John Constable, whose grandfather was the miller at Bures.
In 2009, a partnership including Essex and Suffolk County Councils, Colchester Borough Council and Braintree and Babergh District Council voted to seek to extend the AONB from its present boundaries towards Sudbury.
All these local authorities have confirmed their support for the area’s AONB designation, as have all parish councils in the area concerned. The majority of the land in question lies in Braintree district.
In June 2013, John Butterfield, senior specialist, landscape designations, at Natural England, wrote to the then manager of the project, advising that his agency intended to make an initial assessment of the suggested change to the AONB boundary and use this to identify future protected-landscape designation projects.
In 2015, the project manager initiated an online review asking residents if they would like to see the Dedham Vale AONB extended. Of the 300 respondents, 95 per cent said yes and none said no. The 5 per cent who did not say yes suggested no change.
In July 2016, Alison Farmer Associates, a leading landscape agency, produced a report entitled Special Qualities of the Dedham Vale AONB – Evaluation of the Area between Bures and Sudbury, concluding that the bulk of the land between the present boundaries of the AONB and the northern edge of the parish of Lamarsh met the criteria demanded by Natural England for AONB status.
Ms Farmer told me that the special quality of the village of Bures is the way it sits in the landscape in a most attractive setting. If the village was to be extended along the Colchester road, that special quality, so important to achieving AONB status, would be lost.
In September 2016, Mr Butterfield emailed Simon Amstutz, manager of the Dedham Vale AONB & Stour Valley Project, with the To Assess list of 15 boundary aspirations.
Of these, two were new National Parks (based on existing AONBs), five were new AONBs and six, including Dedham Vale, were boundary variations. These were listed in random order, although it is understood that the Surrey Hills AONB is next in line for review.
In November 2016, the three MPs representing the areas proposed for expanded Dedham Vale AONB designation – Sir Bernard Jenkin, James Cleverly and James Cartlidge – met Lord Gardiner, the DEFRA minister responsible for protected landscapes, to ask if the process of reviewing AONB boundaries, and especially Dedham Vale, could be speeded up.
In August 2017, I wrote to Lord Gardiner with a paper produced by Mr Amstutz and colleagues suggesting ways of speeding up the AONB evaluation process while at the same time ensuring the full engagement of Natural England in the decision-making process.
This paper was passed to and considered by the Natural England board in September 2017. After review, the board agreed to put the recommendations before Lord Gardiner, who, we understand, approved it in early 2018.
However, implementation was delayed by release of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, part of which was a Review of Designated Landscapes by a panel led by Julian Glover.
The panel’s remit states it “does not propose reductions in either the geographic extent or the protections given to England’s designated landscapes” and, inter alia the review, will “also take advice from Natural England on the process of designating National Parks and AONBs and extending boundary areas, with a view to improving and expediting the process”.
In this context, Natural England’s submission to the Glover Review, published in December 2018, recommends the following:
“Item 3 iii: New designations and boundary variations to be undertaken where they add substantial value to the current series. The current designation process should be simplified.
“Item 4.3: inter alia a) We strongly recommend that Government focus is on improving the performance of existing designated landscapes and applying those benefits and their learning beyond their boundaries. New designations and boundary variations should be undertaken where they add substantial national value…
“b) Where new designations are required, the designation process should be reformed to… make designations or boundary variations more straightforward, to achieve within a reasonable timescale…”
Natural England has developed proposals to reform the designation process in response to a request from Lord Gardiner. Options include the introduction of an initial assessment of proposed designations against criteria and a greater role for local stakeholders to provide supporting evidence for designation.
We encourage this review to adopt these recommendations.
In our case the initial assessment and consultation with local stakeholders has already been done.
I have corresponded with Mr Glover, while a member of his panel, Dame Fiona Reynolds, visited the AONB in November 2018 and was briefed on the Dedham Vale AONB extension issues.
She said that the Glover Review expects to produce its report by the end of 2019 and hopefully its recommendations will be implemented in 2020.
It is therefore probable that the Dedham Vale AONB boundary review will take place much sooner than was previously believed and may well become a priority due to the small area concerned, the amount of evaluation and consultation work that has already taken place and the widespread support from MPs, local authorities, amenity societies and individuals. There is no known opposition, which is not the case with many other such applications.