Stowe campaign reaches the end of the road

The Gardens Trust has disappointing news about our campaign to protect a key, un-altered 18th century area of the historic landscape at Stowe.

Stowe School, which occupies the house at the heart of Stowe’s Grade-I listed landscape park, put in an application to build a new design and technology building during lockdown in November 2020. Buckinghamshire Council planning committee passed a resolution to approve the application on 29 September 2021, despite the fact that their own planning officers at Aylesbury Vale District Council had recommended refusal, after having taken the unusual step of employing an independent expert to give them a second opinion. The Georgian Group, Historic England and the Gardens Trust had all objected to the plans for the building, as causing a high degree of harm to the historic fabric and character of one of the most important registered parks and gardens in Europe. In the short window available before the approval is confirmed, the Gardens Trust submitted a request to the Secretary of State for the decision to be called in. This has been refused.

Damaging proposal & a flawed process

The proposal will cause the irreversible loss of part of Rook Spinney, a key, unaltered 18th century area of Stowe’s historic landscape. The school’s assessment of the level of damage is in our opinion flawed, as it unrealistically minimises the effect and potential damage of the development to this very significant woodland, an area which has been identified as fundamental to the design concept of this landscape.

No justification was given that this was the least harmful location and that the building could not be sited elsewhere. The decision of the planning committee disregarded the weight of the expert and professional advice to refuse the application and failed to consider or debate the issues sufficiently to reach an informed and reasoned decision. The committee were also unable to demonstrate that the level of harm to this heritage asset was outweighed by the public benefit of the development, which all the advisers agreed would be minimal.

Request to call in decision

Given the importance of the site, the Gardens Trust took the decision to ask the Minister to call in the decision on 4 November 2021. To our dismay this request was refused on the grounds that ‘the Government remains committed to giving more power to councils and communities to make their own decisions on planning issues and believe that planning decisions should be made at the local level wherever possible. The call-in policy makes it clear that the power to call in a case will only be used very selectively.’

Evidently, they did not listen to our argument that if Stowe is not of national importance then it is hard to know what is. Claire de Carle of Buckinghamshire Gardens Trust approached the local MP but he also declined to assist, saying that the planning decision had his full support.

It therefore seems that there is now very little we can do before the school can begin to build. There are currently some outstanding matters regarding drainage, which are in the process of being addressed. Aylesbury Vale District Council’s landscape architect has requested further details on the soft landscaping as well as a landscape management plan to include long term design objectives, and maintenance schedules for all landscape areas for a minimum of 5 years. They also need to put together a S106 agreement to prevent further development within the Western Gardens. A Section 106 agreement (based on that section of the 1990 Town & Country Planning Act) is a private agreement made between local authorities and developers and can be attached to a planning permission specifying the conditions under which planning consent has been given for what would otherwise be an unacceptable development.

Disappointing outcome for Stowe landscape

Our Conservation Officer Margie Hoffnung has obtained a second opinion on our options from a senior Minister. He confirmed that, while applicants can appeal against refusal of planning permission, there is no right of appeal for objectors to a scheme that has been approved after due process by the local authority or the Secretary of State.

Buckinghamshire Council, having granted conditional planning approval, cannot reverse its decision without incurring legal risk, unless of course the conditions attached to the permission are not fulfilled, in which case the Council could seek to stop or reverse development.

The Department of Housing, Communities & Local Government is deeply reluctant to call in applications save in exceptional circumstances and, having declined to call in the decision, it would be very difficult to persuade the department to change its mind. Our only other option, aside from trying to work with the school to protect the historic landscape as much as possible, would be to take legal advice about seeking a judicial review of the decision to approve planning permission.

This is clearly very disappointing news, not just for us but also for Aylesbury Vale’s conservation team who really gave it their all, only to have all their professional landscape advice ignored by the planning committee councillors. It is hoped that we will be able to work more closely with the National Trust’s gardens team on any future planning applications by Stowe School in order to achieve a more positive outcome.

Sarah Dickinson
Conservation Committee Chair

Image: Stowe in around 1880, Public domain, Wikimedia

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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith