Suffolk County Council has undertaken a project to describe landscapes in detail, throughout Suffolk and assess what particular character and qualities make up the different landscape areas of the county.
Government guidance requires the preparation of landscape character assessments in order to review and/or replace local landscape designations. The results of this assessment may be used as supplementary planning guidance and help to produce landscape management guidelines.
Assessment work has been led by Suffolk County Council in a partnership with the Living Landscapes Project based at Reading University, private consultants Steven Warnock and Mark Diacano and all District and Borough Councils in Suffolk.
The project is using Countryside Agency guidelines and methodology developed by the Living Landscapes Project. This has maintained a consistent approach across Suffolk.
The completion of the Level 2 Suffolk Landscape Character Assessment (LCA) in 2008 is a significant milestone in a project that has involved both consultant and local authority input. In comparison with similar approaches in many other parts of the country, the Suffolk LCA has been more of a home grown project supported, rather than led, by consultants.
The Suffolk LCA is based on Steven Warnock’s Land Description Unit (LDU) methodology in which discreet units of broadly homogeneous land are identified according to a set of physical and cultural characteristics. This was followed by field surveys, to assess the visual character and condition of the over 300 polygons identified by Steven. This part of the project drew upon Mark Diacono’s expertise to provide training for the surveyors, technical digital mapping and data collation. The surveying was carried out over three years from 2003 to 2006 by pairs of trained surveyors drawn mostly from local authorities and countryside management projects.
Having carried out the field surveys it was then possible to identify the dominant and prominent characteristics of each Land Description Unit and amalgamate them to form provisional landscape types. The next stage was to look at the provisional types in detail to see if they stood up to closer examination, especially in reference to the field survey data for each of the land description units and to our understanding of the historic landscape. The historic landscape and its evolution had already been useful in producing the draft typology, by helping to understand some of the apparent, but rather subtle, differences both within and between landscape types. The involvement of Edward Martin from the Suffolk Archaeology Unit with his specialist knowledge of the historical evolution of landscapes has brought an added dimension of understanding and explanation to the characterisation process. The act of writing a description for each landscape has proved to be a very good way to test the strengths and weaknesses of the provisional typology. If a description needed too many caveats, and the key characteristics were not sufficiently coherent, then the areas of land included within that landscape type had to be revised. The process was both rewarding and frustrating in equal measure often involving animated debate, site visits and several re-workings of the map. This creative tension had to achieve a balance between my desire to make the work as accurate as possible and the desire to deliver the final product as soon as possible.
The material is primarily aimed at professional users working in the fields of development control planning and land management, the website is also designed to cater for the interested public who want to understand more about the county they live in. Therefore the web designers have made the site, and I will continue to expand it, in such a way that it helps the wider public of Suffolk understand and appreciate more about their county.
In Suffolk the planning policy environment for LCA remains fluid, with different districts at very different stages in the development of their Local Development Framework Documents. All districts have some policy, or embryonic policy, regarding the Landscape Character and its application to forward planning and development control, it will be up to them to apply it in the delivery of those services. The County Council is embarking on the process of working with districts to help make this happen. It is important to establish leads on Landscape Character in each authority. They can support development control officers, forward planners and other staff in using the Suffolk LCA, to manage landscape change and development across the county, and produce local detailed studies for whole districts or specific growth areas.
In conclusion the approach adopted in the development of the LCA in Suffolk has entailed:
- Employing consultants to provide technical methodology, training and specialist digital mapping services.
- Developing the surveying skills of local authority partners to carry out the field survey work.
- Using historic landscape characterisation information to understand and explain differences in landscape character within and between landscape character types.
- Ensuring that a range of local authority staff throughout Suffolk have an input into the final results.
The Suffolk approach has not only achieved significant cost savings, but has also fostered a degree of common ownership for the project. This should help to make the application of the work in both policy and practice a reality across the whole of the county.