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Little Marlow saved… for now

Christa McDermott
By Christa McDermott
9th June 2024

At the end of May, we were very pleased that Buckinghamshire Council decided – after a marathon committee meeting – to refuse the application to build a huge new film studios on green belt land at Little Marlow.

The campaign to stop the construction of a film studio in this area has gone on for well over two years. CPRE has worked with the local residents group “Save Marlow’s Green Belt”, and other groups, throughout. We have written numerous letters, met with the MP (Joy Morrissey), councilors at both County and local levels – and with other interested parties – and finally we have a positive result. The proposed site of the film studio is part of an area designated for a country park in the Wycombe Local Plan, which was formally adopted by Wycombe District Council just before it was subsumed into the new Buckinghamshire Unitary Council. It is also adjacent to the Chiltern Hills National Landscape (the new name for AONBs) and the River Thames. Although the applicant dismissively referred to the area as “a former gravel pit” it is, in fact, rich in biodiversity and wildlife.
While we celebrate this success, there are points to learn. For example, land designated as green belt is supposed to have a high degree of protection, which is articulated in the government’s National Planning Policy Framework, or NPPF. The NPPF says that “Inappropriate development is, by definition, harmful to the Green Belt and should not be approved except in very special circumstances.” “Inappropriate development” is reasonably clearly defined in the NPPF, but what constitutes “very special circumstances” (or VSC) is not defined at all. And, although the government also backs up the NPPF with Policy Guidance, that is also silent on the meaning of this phrase. We in CPRE have noticed that every single planning application submitted over the last few years to the Council for development on green belt land is claiming VSC.

Clearly they cannot all be correct or there will be nothing “very special” about them! This leaves the Council in a really tricky position. The only guidance they have is through previous cases, i.e.: examples of decisions and appeals on other green belt development proposals where VSC has either been allowed or denied.
But these are not straightforward because every situation is different and every Inspector seems to have a different opinion on what is “very special”. It is highly subjective. We will be looking to a new government, of whatever colour, to improve the protection of valuable open spaces, such as green belt, to preserve our precious countryside for future generations. It would be good to start with an end to the landscape lottery caused by this vague phrase.