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Housing Development’s Intrusion on Gainsborough Landscape

The Court of Appeal has rejected arguments that a full environmental impact assessment (EIA) was required prior to consideration of whether planning permission should be granted for a housing development that objectors say will intrude into a historic landscape beloved of 18th Century painter, Sir Thomas Gainsborough.

Countryside in autumnThe rural vista from Grade 1 listed Abbas Hall, near Sudbury, Suffolk, featured in Sir Thomas’s 1740 masterpiece, ‘Cornard Wood’, as well as other works and local campaigners argue that some of the 170 new homes planned for the area will be visible from the hall and have an alien ‘visual urbanising effect’.

Michael Evans, chairman of the Cornard Tye Residents’ Association, went to court after the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government decided that there was no need for an EIA. Whilst recognising the importance of the setting of Abbas Hall and the area’s associations with Sir Thomas, he said the new homes would be largely shielded by a bowl in the landscape and, at 4.5 hectares, the development ‘would not be of sufficient magnitude to be likely to have a significant effect on the environment’.

Mr Evans’ judicial review challenge to the Secretary of State’s decision was dismissed by the High Court but, on appeal, his lawyers renewed arguments that he had failed to take the required ‘precautionary and purposive’ approach to the issue of whether an EIA was required. It was submitted that the Secretary of State’s decision was at odds with the views of the local planning authority and that English Heritage and the Suffolk Preservation Society had expressed concerns about the project.

However, dismissing Mr Evans’ appeal, the court noted that, if an EIA was required in every case where there was a difference of opinion as to the environmental effects of a development, the Secretary of State’s role in making screening decisions would become ‘largely redundant’. Arguments that the usual rationality test applied by the courts in judicial review cases was inadequate in such circumstances were also rejected.

Departmental guidance indicated that EIAs would only normally be required for developments of more than five hectares which would have significant urbanising effects on previously non-urbanised areas. In the instant case, although some of the houses would be visible from the grounds of Abbas Hall, the development fell below that indicative size and would be adjacent to existing housing.