Regional Planning Guidance in the South East, up to May 2009, included Strategic Gaps as one means of protecting areas of countryside and ensuring that towns and villages retain their separate identity and do not ‘merge.’

This approach has been incorporated into Structure and Local Plans over the years, and in particular West Sussex. The West Sussex Structure Plan, adopted in 2004, contained 22 gaps between settlements which are considered to be of strategic importance. In these ‘gaps’, development would not be permitted which would undermine their fundamental purpose and integrity (Policy CH3).

However, times are changing and with it could be the status of these Strategic Gaps. The new regional guidance, The South East Plan, does not contain any policy relating to the designation of Strategic Gaps. Instead, reliance is now placed on ‘positive and high quality management of the Regions open countryside’ outside of nationally designated landscapes (Policy C4). Key policy aims are to protect and enhance local distinctiveness, informed by landscape character assessment.

This approach is also reflected in Planning Policy Guidance PPS7: Sustainable Development in Rural Areas, which states that ‘landscape character assessments‘ should provide sufficient ‘protection’ without the need for rigid local designations that may unduly restrict acceptable sustainable development. Emphasis should therefore be placed on ‘criteria-based’ planning policies.

We are now in the midst of ‘Core Strategy’ production to replace Structure and Local Plans, and PPS7 advises that as part of this process planning authorities should rigorously consider the justification for retaining existing local landscape designations.

Many Districts in West Sussex, such as Horsham, have Strategic Gaps as one of their key planning policies. However, as Core Strategies are being produced (or in Horsham District Council’s case, being reviewed) close attention should be paid to land which has to date been considered as being subject to this key policy constraint to development – circumstances may be changing!