Proposed extension to the Cranborne Chase and West Wilts Downs AONB

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By Ken McCall
30th March 2021

On 13th February, 2014 the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) wrote to Natural England (NE) endorsing in the strongest possible terms the White Horse Alliance’s (WHA) proposal to NE that the Cranborne Chase and West Wilts Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) should be extended round the escarpment of Salisbury Plain as far as Westbury Hill so as to include the White Horse, Bratton Camp iron-age hill fort and the Wellhead Valley.

The CPRE and the WHA prioritised landscape protection when they realised that the very special nature of this scarp and vale landscape was not only important for its habitats and recreational value, but also in supporting a diverse rural economy for the area. The two planning inspectors who examined Wiltshire County Council’s bypass proposal at a planning inquiry in 2008 concluded that the transport case for the road was not strong enough to justify the damage it would have done to this tranquil landscape and recommended that planning permission should be refused. The government agreed and the scheme was scrapped in July 2009.    Wiltshire Council (successor to WCC) did not challenge this decision. See https://www.corridor-alliance.co.uk/news-july-2009.html

The WHA has followed the advice of NE that it should obtain support for its proposed AONB extension from local authorities and other stakeholders.   WHA has therefore secured the support of Westbury Town Council, the Westbury Area Board, the local community, local campaigning bodies and NGOs which, hopefully, should be persuasive in ensuring the area’s national designation, despite the lack of support from Wiltshire Council.

WHA has asked Wiltshire Council to explain why it appears to be blocking a proposal endorsed by these representative bodies in the Westbury community area but has received no satisfactory explanation.

CPRE are particularly concerned that the council’s reluctance to support the AONB extension appears to be connected with its continuing intention to reintroduce the eastern Westbury bypass.   Its reluctance to abandon the project has been evident since soon after cancellation.  By 2012 it had devised a cunning plan to slip the scheme back into the planning system by getting the route of the eastern bypass ‘safeguarded’ in the ‘core strategy’ that would eventually become the local plan. See  https://www.corridor-alliance.co.uk/news-september-2012.html

When the Core Strategy came before an inspector at the Examination in Public (EIP) in the summer of 2013 Wiltshire Council resisted arguments from the WHA and other environmental bodies that the route should not be safeguarded. When it became clear that the inspector would not approve the plan unless the route was deleted the council eventually relented.  The A350 Westbury bypass does not appear on the current local plan.

The Council has however declared its intention to build an A350 bypass of Westbury as part of a fast north-south road from the M4 to Warminster and beyond.   The current Local Plan review lists tens of millions of pounds’ worth of road projects along the route.

The former chairman of the Wiltshire Branch of the CPRE, the late George McDonic, in his days as a planning officer, helped to ensure that the boundary of the AONB was extended north of the A36 at Heytesbury.   Unfortunately, the recommendation of the Hobhouse committee that the AONB should also embrace the escarpment of Salisbury Plain to Bratton and beyond was not taken up, but CPRE will continue to pursue that idealistic vision from the post-war years and to campaign for national protection for this remarkable landscape.

In response to the WHA’s and CPRE’s joint letter to Dr Andrew Murrison MP on 15 November 2019, NE replied on 27th February 2020, saying that “NE’s future work programme will be prioritised in accordance with the Government’s response to Julian Glover’s Landscape Review”.     The WHA and CPRE therefore wrote another joint letter to Dr Murrison on 22nd February 2021 stressing the urgency for NE to designate the area as an AONB to give it the protection it deserves not only from the probability of WC resurrecting its eastern bypass threat but also the proposed housing sprawl into the Wellhead Valley shown on WC’s Local Plan Review maps.

Background

The West Wiltshire Group of the CPRE was a founder member of the White Horse Alliance in 2007.   The West Wilshire Group’s commitment to defending this remarkable landscape from the proposed eastern Westbury bypass ensured that CPRE’s Wiltshire county branch and CPRE’s national organisation would become members of the WHA and give their full support to the campaign.

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