Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) – tool to support sustainable development

Last week, members of our landscape team attended an informative CPD day organised by the Landscape Institute South West Branch. The theme was ‘People, Place, Identity: The Application of Character Assessment to Shaping Our Environment’.

Over the course of the day speakers demonstrated the diverse methods by which Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) can be used to protect and conserve our landscapes whilst supporting sustainable development.  There were also discussions around the emerging Seascape Character Assessments (SCA) which are being completed at a strategic level (1:200,000 scale) to complement the existing National Landscape Character Areas.

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Applying LCA and SCA

The following paragraphs give some examples of the application of LCA and SCA:

Christine Tudor (Natural England) began the day by outlining the policy context of LCAs and SCAs at an international level through the European Landscape Convention, and nationally through the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

By contrast Mark Connelly (Cotswold Conservation Board) demonstrated the application of Landscape Character Assessment in the Cotswolds. Designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), the Cotswolds is the second largest nationally designated landscape in the UK, covering an area of land larger than Dartmoor and Exmoor combined. Here an LCA was undertaken and used as the basis of informing the AONB Management Plan, which stems from a requirement of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act.  The LCA has been used to identify areas suitable for woodland planting, which is significant in a landscape with only 15 % woodland at present, and consider how new characteristics (such as renewables development) can be sensitively introduced into the landscape.

Melanie Croll (Landscape Officer, Devon County Council and Chair of the Devon Landscape Policy Group) gave an insight into how Landscape Character Assessment can guide landscape change in Devon. Melanie outlined the current pressures on the Devon landscape to accommodate a growing population, renewables in the landscape, and the need to protect the undeveloped coast.  The Devon LCA has been applied as a tool in preparation of Neighbourhood Plans (NPs) to identify sites appropriate for development.  NPs are a relatively new planning tool, coming into effect since the introduction of the NPPF and in this instance, LCAs have been used to offer guidelines on how development can conserve and enhance the local character, finding a positive solution to accommodating a growing population. A Sensitivity Study into wind and solar developments has been undertaken with LCA at its core.  Each identified character area was assessed for its individual sensitivity, taking into account the effect of development on the key characteristics and views. To tackle the pressures on the undeveloped coast to accommodate new development, SCA is currently being used to assess the North Devon coastline and identify the important characteristics of the sea and the coast.  The coast, being the interface between the land and sea, is not necessarily covered by existing LCA’s.

Blog - BathAndrew Sharland (Senior Landscape Architect for Bath and North East Somerset) discussed how Landscape Character Assessment has been used in the management of Bath’s historic and internationally significant landscape.  Here, Landscape Character Assessment has been applied to develop two key supplementary planning documents in the form of the ‘Bath City-wide Character Appraisal, and ‘Rural Landscape of Bath and North East Somerset (BANES)’. Andrew spoke about how LCA has been used to identify suitable sites for future development while protecting the city’s key characteristics, such as its harmonious appearance, picturesque architecture and ability to sit comfortably in the landscape.

On a slight tangent, Emma Marrington (Senior Policy Campaigner, CPRE) explained how pollution can affect landscape character.  With the growing urbanisation of our rural landscapes, there are increasing levels of light pollution from a variety of sources, such as street lights or the glare of car headlights, resulting in the loss of our ‘Dark Skies’.  Emma shared results of surveys undertaken with local authorities into the dimming or switching off of lights between midnight and 5 am. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the key reason for uptake of these measures by local authorities has been economic pressure rather than environmental virtue. It is, however, an interesting example of synergy between economic and environmental benefit.  Although Emma did not delve too far into potential links between light pollution and landscape character, there is perhaps scope for future LCAs to take into account the presence and perception of artificial light in our landscapes, ensuring that developments mitigate the worst effects of light pollution and to preserve our ‘Dark Skies’.

David Hutchinson (Marine Planner, Marine Management Organisation) provided some background into the development of marine planning and introduced Seascape Character Assessment (SCA), a relatively new tool / methodology which builds upon the principles of Landscape Character Assessment.  Recent guidance from Natural England, ‘An approach to Seacape Character Assessment’, provides a methodology not dissimilar to LCA guidance.  Whilst at first glance the sea appears to be a rather generic landscape, there are many layers of invisible and subterranean elements which define seascape character. These can include shipping routes, underwater wrecks, MOD sites, fishing areas and views to and from the sea. SCA is a tool for characterising not only the sea, but also the coast.  A relatively new tool, SCA is currently being completed at the national level, to compliment the National Landscape Character Areas; however there are a number of emerging local level plans

LCA and Sustainable Development

projects-educations-melksham-oak-featuredOne key message from the day was that Landscape Character Assessment is not a tool aimed at preventing development in the landscape but rather a tool to support sustainable development.

Developing peoples understanding of landscape and seascape character is vital if we are to achieve truly sustainable development, an underlying principle of the NPPF. Let’s hope that the key policy makers and our new Government continue to support and promote LCA and SCA, at all scales, as we aim to tackle the growing pressures of the modern day.

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