Hart District Council refused outline permission last September for developer Martin Grant Homes Ltd's (MGH) proposals to redevelop 34 hectares of farmland on the south western edge of the village of Church Crookham. The proposed scheme included more than 320 homes, floorspace for a GP surgery and a convenience store, open space, playing pitches and improvements to a road junction. The developers also proposed to provide a 16-hectare SANG to mitigate the impact of the development on the nearby Thames Basin Heaths special protection area (TBH SPA), a site designated in 2005 to protect the habitat of three internationally threatened bird species.
In a decision issued on 26 June (26-page / 287 KB PDF), planning inspector Claire Sherratt allowed MGH's appeal against the Council's decision and granted permission for amended plans including a sports pavilion and a slightly reduced number of homes. The inspector said the main issue under consideration in her appeal decision had been whether the proposed SANG would attract the future residents of the new development away from the TBH SPA, preventing a potential increase in visitor pressure having a significant detrimental effect on it.
Sherratt said the location of the proposed SANG directly adjacent to the development site would make it an "extremely convenient alternative to the TBH SPA" for the future residents of the new homes, as well as being accessible to users of a new car park and residents of the nearby Zebon Copse estate. She said a proposed 2.3 km circular walk around the SANG was long enough to meet guidelines issued by government environmental adviser Natural England and the SANG would "provide a significant area where dogs could run freely and safely off the lead, a key priority of a SANG".
Addressing the Council's concerns about the potential for water logging in some areas of the SANG, the inspector noted that a weekly winter survey commissioned by MGH had revealed only three occasions of localised water logging, that "other SANGs, existing and proposed, are situated within flood zones" and that a proposed boardwalk would "ensure that the full circular walk is accessible most days". Sherratt said that there was sufficient evidence before her "to demonstrate that the extent of boardwalks necessary would not unduly detract from the overall enjoyment of the circular route or lead to congestion" and that there was no evidence that boardwalks at other SANGs had deterred potential users.
The inspector was satisfied that the "natural qualities and enjoyment of the proposed SANG as a whole would not … be spoiled" by a proposed series of wooden pylons and pole mounted wires across its southern part. Sherratt did not accept that the SANG would be "bland". She said the proposed circular route would provide "variation and interest", including an open northern section, a southern field "bounded by ancient woodland" and sections alongside a river and through a protected meadow.
Sherratt said that, whilst "linkages to other footpaths and SANGs through other green linkages are not a requisite for a SANG of the size proposed", it would benefit from "'pleasant' green footpath routes" linking an existing estate to the new development. The inspector considered that the circular walk would "be attractive and perceived to be safe" and that better management of the site once in use as a SANG could allow "nature conservation enhancements" to be achieved.
Overall, Sherratt was satisfied that "any adverse effects can be sufficiently reduced or overcome through mitigation measures, such that the integrity of the TBH SPA is not adversely affected and that planning permission may be granted".
Planning expert Jo Miles of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com said: "This decision will be of interest to those promoting or determining planning applications for residential development near special protection areas, sites of special scientific interest or other designated protection areas. The inspector referred to Natural England guidelines in assessing whether the SANG proposed by the applicant would achieve the overriding purposes of diverting people away from the SPA."
"The decision underlines the need for applicants for development within the ‘zone of influence’ of any such areas to agree appropriate mitigation measures with Natural England to ensure their integrity is protected," said Miles. "Mitigation measures will usually take the form of access management and the creation of a SANG on nearby land. Applicants should ensure they have the necessary land rights and permissions in place to create the SANG, and can expect a planning restriction preventing occupation of development until such measures are in place. The decision also serves as a useful reminder to local authorities of their duties as ‘competent authority’ under the Habitats Regulations to ensure that development proposals will not adversely affect the integrity of protected areas."