Following three years of air quality monitoring on the Ashdown Forest, Wealden District Council has now published comprehensive reports as part of the process of developing a new planning blueprint.
The work is intended to deal with the impact of exhaust gases on this fragile heathland ecosystem from additional traffic. The Local Plan sets out levels of sustainable development for housing, retail and business activities, and along with its supporting evidence, is used when the local authority considers planning applications. Once the new Local Plan is adopted, developers may find it harder to get permission for anything that increases the number of vehicle movements in the vicinity of the Forest. Neighbouring planning authorities will also need to take heed of air quality on Ashdown Forest.
However local authorities are also required to demonstrate that they have a five year supply of land for housing development. Wealden District Council’s assessment (as of June 2017) shows a shortfall of 3,650 houses in the period to 2022 – there is a requirement for 7,794 houses but only 4,144 are developable.
In the absence of a five year housing land supply (or an outdated Local Plan) the Government’s “presumption in favour of sustainable development” comes into play.
Cllr Ann Newton, Cabinet Member for Planning and Development said:
One of the key factors impacting on the progress of the Wealden Local Plan is the impact of air pollution on the Ashdown Forest and other relevant Special Areas of Conservation.
Significant work has been undertaken in the last three years to monitor air quality and ecology on Ashdown Forest. The work also includes modelling future traffic flows arising from proposed development within the Wealden Local Plan and identifying nitrogen deposition and other pollutants on Ashdown Forest as a result of growth. Work has also been undertaken on modelling the future levels of pollutants arising from proposed development on Pevensey Levels and Lewes Downs.
The report for the Ashdown Forest concludes that nitrogen deposition, ammonia and nitrogen dioxide concentrations within the Forest are above critical levels, likely as a result of emissions from road traffic.
Automated traffic counters on the roads in the area show that on average there are 16,000 vehicles per day on the A26 at Poundgate, South of Crowborough and over 5,000 vehicles per day on New Road across the Forest.
As part of measures to alleviate pressure on the Ashdown Forest, in 2015 the Council acquired former grazing land next to the 160-homes Walshes Road development to create an alternative recreational venue to Ashdown Forest. Nearly two miles of paths have already been constructed at the SANGS, Suitable Alternative Natural Green Space, now called Walshes Park.
On the Council’s website Frequently Asked Questions are also provided for information. One FAQ addresses the issue of emissions from aircraft:
A large number of scientific research studies have shown that, once aircraft reach altitudes of more than a few hundred metres, which usually happens within a few hundred metres from the airport boundary, their effect on ground level air pollution concentrations becomes negligible. This is because the pollution which is emitted becomes dispersed and diluted into high-altitude air, rather than being brought down to the ground. Emissions at height will have an incremental effect on general background pollution levels, but no measurable effect on ground level concentrations or deposition rates.
Other Conservation Areas
The next stage for Wealden District Council will be to consider this report as part of its Wealden Local Plan Habitats Regulation Assessment as well as to consider any additional information such as that relating to the ecological monitoring.
Cllr Newton continued:
What we are publishing relates to air quality and the deposition of nitrogen and other pollutants. The ecology elements relating to Ashdown Forest, Pevensey Levels and Lewes Downs are being worked on in conjunction with Natural England and our consultants and should be with us by the end of the year to feed into the Habitats Regulation Assessment for the Local Plan.
The reports for the Pevensey Levels and Lewes Downs, also European protected Special Areas of Conservation, conclude that under some scenarios nitrogen dioxide concentrations, nitrogen deposition and ammonia concentrations are being exceeded. The next stage will be to assess the ecological impact with input from Natural England alongside their input on the Air Quality reports, to determine if an Appropriate Assessment in these areas is required.
Adoption of the Local Plan
Wealden District Council have said they will continue to work closely with Natural England and with air quality and ecological consultants to complete all aspects of the work and to understand the need and actions required in order to meet the requirements of the Habitats Directive and Regulations. Natural England have indicated that they should be in a position to provide draft comments back to Wealden District Council by the end of December.
Following the endorsement of the draft Local Plan by Full Council in March 2017, officers have been working on completing the supporting evidence base, key elements being the Habitat Regulations Assessment. The Council’s intention to seek approval from the Full Council in March 2018 before proceeding to the next consultation stage.
In the end the Government’s Planning Inspectorate will determine whether the Local Plan is “sound” – that, among other things, it meets objectively assessing housing and business needs; it is justified by evidence and meets national planning policy.
The air quality reports for the three areas are available on the Council’s website: www.wealden.gov.uk.