Tranquillity - planning Fineshade's future
"The quality of calm, experienced in places with mainly natural features, free from disturbance from man-made ones". (CPRE definition)
For many who know and love Fineshade, one of its most valued features is its calm peacefulness. Once you leave Top Lodge and take off into the wood itself, there is very little to remind you of the high-paced 21st century world outside it. No vehicles, very little traffic noise, few people, no mobile signal. In response to the recent spate of applications to create holiday camps many objectors referred to Fineshade’s present quietness, wildness and remoteness – features that would disappear if the developments were to go ahead.
Recent psychological research has identified the therapeutic effects of forests and the particular benefits of the tranquillity of woodlands. (See for example Health and Well-being: Trees, Woodlands and Natural Spaces, by Tabbush P. and O’Brian L., Forestry Commission 2003.)
The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) has long fought for the preservation of tranquillity in the English countryside. They have developed a way to measure tranquillity and produced a map showing tranquillity levels of all areas across England. They have been using this evidence to work with policy makers to find ways to protect, enhance and restore our tranquil areas.
Fineshade is now part of an “Area of Tranquillity” because the North Northamptonshire Joint Planning Unit adopted their new important planning document in July 2016.
On this page we discuss what effect this change to local planning policy will have on future developments in Fineshade Wood. We are always happy to consider publishing opinion pieces such as this and would invite comments, corrections or congratulations(!)
"Visitors’ favourite things about Top Lodge Fineshade Wood were the peace/ tranquillity/ relaxation, the walks/ paths/ trails and the beautiful scenery/views.
"Respondents were asked what they liked most about Top Lodge Fineshade Wood. The top two aspects were the peace / tranquillity / relaxation (39%), and walks / paths / trails (39%)."
Quality of Visitor Experience Survey:
Top Lodge Fineshade Wood
Prepared for: The Forestry Commission Prepared by: BMG Research March 2012
Tranquillity in Planning Policy
Largely as a result of CPRE’s work, the national government’s revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) said, in 2012, that local authorities should identify and protect areas that are valued for their tranquillity. Locally, East Northamptonshire Council (ENC), along with three other local planning authorities had been preparing the North Northamptonshire Joint Core Strategy (JCS)
2011-2031. (See http://www.nnjpu.org.uk)
This important planning policy document was finally adopted on 14th July 2016. In the new document, drawing on CPRE findings, an area to be known as the King’s Cliffe Hills and Valleys Landscape Character Area was defined and described. See in particular sections 3.25-3.29 leading to Policy 3(f):
Development should ...preserve tranquillity within the King’s Cliffe Hills and Valleys Landscape Character Area (as shown on the Policy Map)... by minimising light and noise pollution and minimising the visual and traffic impacts of development.
It is clear from that map that Fineshade lies firmly within this Area of Tranquillity.
So just what difference will this designation make to the way the local planning authority handles future applications for development?
Interpreting planning policy –
Fineshade Wood and Jack’s Green
Even in 2015 it was apparent that the new policy was beginning to be taken into account.
It is generally acknowledged that interpretation of local planning policy boils down eventually to a matter of opinion. Consider for example, the last planning application for Fineshade Wood, Forest Holiday’s plan to erect 70 cabins and associated buildings and infrastructure together with a new access road. The local parish council was fundamentally opposed to the plan and listed eight clauses of the NPPF that were not satisfied, together with a raft of policies within what was then the current local planning policy (the 2008 Core Spatial Strategy, CSS) and other local planning documents that were not satisfied by the application. On the other hand the planning officer handling the case for ENC, having a totally different opinion about the development, found the national and local planning policy documents “overwhelmingly supportive”. It does seem that a case could be made either way, depending what one chooses to ignore or to select .
Quite reasonably, the ENC Planning Officer did not consider the new JCS document when he was formulating his interpretation of planning policy in relation to Fineshade in September 2014, but by December he was repeating his “overwhelmingly supportive” arguments for yet another nearby tourist development, at Jack’s Green on the east side of King’s Cliffe. This time he moderated his support for the development with the following:
“provided that the applicant can demonstrate that the scheme would not adversely affect the tranquillity (i.e. light, noise, visual and traffic) of the adjacent woodlands (King’s Cliffe Hills and Valleys Landscape Character Area) . Overall there are no Planning Policy objections, in respect of the principle of development provided that the applicant can demonstrate compliance with emerging JCS Policy 3(f).”
Would it be sufficient to ensure that external lighting points downwards?
This picture shows the lighting associated with just one of Forest Holidays' cabins. If this extra lighting were multiplied 70 times for 70 cabins, could it be claimed that light was minimised and tranquillity preserved?
"Recreation at ‘honeypots’, such as the Major Oak, can reduce tranquillity by one zone due to the accumulated effect of people, structures and traffic. "
Tranquillity Mapping as an Aid to Forest Planning
Forestry Commission Information Note, 1999.
It’s just plain common sense that, if you introduce 2 miles of new roads, 70 lit and heated cabins with outdoor hot-tubs, a year-round population of over 300 people, daily delivery vehicles, children’s playground, bar, cafe and shop, then tranquillity will not be what it was.
Excitement in an outdoor hot-tub (FH website)
The Planning Officer had pointed out that Jack’s Green was only adjacent to the new area of tranquillity, but even so, he thought it relevant enough to flag up the importance of this new policy. Fineshade lies fully within the area so it is reasonable to assume that it would be even more important to any future planning application here. Questions were asked why the Planning Officer did not draw the council’s attention to the emerging policy at the meeting at which Fineshade’s application was determined in February 2015, fully 2 months after he had written this about Jack’s Green. However, councillors agreed with the parish council and, despite the Officer's recommendation of acceptance, the application was unanimously refused.
What difference will it actually make?
So looking ahead, how will the Planning Authority set about ensuring that tranquillity is preserved? Is it simply a matter of ensuring that every new development minimises light and noise pollution and also minimises the visual and traffic impacts? For example, would it be sufficient to ensure that outdoor lighting points downwards, that heat source pumps are regularly checked to ensure low noise levels, that there is sufficient screening of new buildings and that traffic impacts are reduced by encouraging staff car-sharing or encouraging use of
(non-existent!) public transport? All such ideas have been part and parcel of sustainable developments for some time and have been regular requirements laid on developers by planning authorities. Or is it the case that the new policy would simply not allow particular types of development in an area of tranquillity?
Forestry Commission use of tranquillity mapping
It is instructive to look for guidance on tranquillity to a rather unexpected source - the Forestry Commission Research Department. In March 1999 Simon Bell carried out what at the time was ground-breaking research on tranquillity mapping as an aid to forest planning. (Document available here.) He carried out a pilot survey to map the tranquillity (or lack of it!) of the Sherwood Forest area. In order to measure tranquillity, it was necessary first to define it and list factors that add to or detract from it. Some of this is very obvious stuff – make a road busier and the level of tranquillity falls, the larger a settlement the larger the visual psychological disturbance and the lower the tranquillity. Crucially, holiday and caravan parks are explicitly acknowledged as contributing to a reduction in tranquillity.
In the FC context, the report states: “Recreation at ‘honeypots’, such as the Major Oak, can reduce tranquillity due to the accumulated effect of people, structures and traffic.” Importantly though, there is an increase in tranquillity where there is woodland: “This demonstrates that strategically located woodland could enhance tranquillity in places where it is absent or low, with beneficial effects for local people”.
The author identified these potential uses for the new technique of tranquillity mapping:
locating new woodland where the greatest increases in tranquillity are to be gained;
using woodland to increase tranquillity in areas that are most disturbed near to where people live;
testing the effect of felling woodlands on the tranquillity of part of an area.
Therefore it appears that FC have the expertise and ability to be able to produce tranquillity maps that show predicted tranquillity before and after a proposed holiday development in the middle of a woodland such as Fineshade. But on the other hand, perhaps it’s not worth the effort, because it’s just plain common sense that, if you introduce 2 miles of new roads, 70 lit and heated cabins with outdoor hot-tubs, a year-round population of over 300 people, daily delivery vehicles, children’s playground, bar, cafe and shop, then tranquillity will not be what it was.
Lack of tranquillity at Forest Holidays:
"Sadly the weekend was ruined by poor behaving party goers with no consideration for anyone! I consider myself to be a party person.... However as I tried to relax in the hot tub with my wife we were exposed to VERY loud music...screaming....... Etc...For literally hours..... In fact from lunchtime Saturday to leaving!"
"However there were some groups staying near by who were up until 4.30am shouting and drinking in their hot tub ... the same happened again the following night and no one came to put a stop to it."
Two separate quotes from Trip Adviser.
Forest Holidays, Forest of Dean site, January 2016
So what does this mean for Fineshade in 2016 and beyond?
If Forest Holidays and their partners the Forestry Commission were to try again to get permission to build in Fineshade Wood, it seems that they would have an even harder job than last time to persuade the good councillors of East Northants to let them go ahead. Would the council's Planning Officer still find an overwhelmingly supportive case for the development? Would he take account of the new policy to protect and enhance the tranquillity of the area? Would the local parish councils object with even stronger logic and determination, knowing that the new Joint Core Strategy supports their case even more strongly?
But ultimately the really important question is whether Fineshade’s tranquillity will survive to be savoured by the generations to come.