The following is an article on GLVIA3 that I wrote for the July edition of Landscape Matters. I am keen to encourage positive debate on why and how our profession carries out landscape and visual impact assessments. I welcome any comments from colleagues on the issues raised.
GLVIA and the Louse
There has been a lot of discussion within the profession this last twelve months on the methodology and purposes of ‘Guidelines for Landscape and Visual Impact’ 3rd edition – GLVIA3 to those who use it a lot; the purple book to some. The Institute held a webinar in December 2020 and Landscape Matters held a Teams discussion in February 2021 that I helped organise. Both were recorded and are available via the following links: the December 2020 Webinar is at http://www.landscapearchitecture.org.uk/glvia-guidelines-for-landscape-and-visual-impact-assessment/; and the LI discussion can be seen on https://youtu.be/o7j2sxfEHRY
It’s fair to say that some people think the Third Edition, first published in 2013, is superannuated and work should begin now on a Fourth. Others think it is fine as a guide and all that is required is its correct use. The profession appears to be divided with, at least, a substantial minority in favour of change; and there does not appear to be any intent to begin work on a revision of the GLVIA text as it stands. I think the text is dated and ambiguous, I so I am uncomfortable with this apparent stalemate. I know the text is always under review, but I feel the effectiveness of this “Whack-a-mole” approach to individual problems is waning.
One of the features of the debate that has always struck me is its largely introspective nature. It seems to be one in which landscape architects speak, in the main, to other landscape architects about their concerns on the method and purpose of landscape and visual assessment. This is proper up to a point: after all, we do the work and write the reports. But what about those who have to use our work? I would guess that almost all LVIAs are prepared to assist in the formulation of planning decisions and plan-making; both of which are the work of other professions. What do they think about the many pages of text, plans, photographs and figures that we produce?
It was to get away from this introspection that I asked Landscape Matters to host a debate in which one of the contributors was a planning barrister - Charlie Banner QC of Keating Chambers. Being on the outside looking in, he was able to see our work in the round and in relation to the purposes of planning law. It was so startlingly original a point of view that, seeking last month to find a constructive way forward, I went back to him and asked if he would conduct a straw poll amongst his colleagues in the profession on their opinion of GLVIA3. I thought if the most insightful people involved in the planning debate were happy with the product of GLVIA3, then perhaps I should swallow my personal concerns. But judging from the opinions Charlie received, it turns out I am not alone in thinking it is time to reform and re-write.
The following statements are drawn from the responses of seven planning barristers, five of whom are QCs, and they are members of five planning chambers. Although I make no pretence of this being a thorough poll of the profession, their comments make sober reading for all of us who have a bit of professional amour propre. Some of the comments are brief; a number develop their ideas; one sets out his concerns in detail. I have not altered any of the statements; nor have contacted any of the barristers to press a point of view. They asked to remain anonymous - though I know who they are - so, with a nod to Quentin Tarantino, let’s call them Mr White, Mr Orange, Mr Blonde, Mr Pink, Mr Blue and Ms Brown. Charlie Banner’s comments are identified, for these are the opinions he gave in his paper at the Landscape Matters discussion in February this year.
All but one would like to see the document substantially revised, and Mr Pink gave the pithiest summation of its defects:
‘My view is that it is pretty hopeless because it seeks to impose a methodology which is largely meaningless. An LPA witness always can justify a case however poor and give it the badge of legitimacy that the assessment is GVLIA compliant. It should be much firmer and much more objective frankly.’
Ouch! There it is in-toto: a meaningless methodology producing a document capable of suiting any case; something loose that is too subjective. Methodology is, of course, the point of having a GLVIA; and the distinguishing feature of all the editions since the first in 1995 is the rise of the matrix; the development of the concepts that form the x and y axes; and discussions about what the nine (or twelve) resultant hierarchical indicators of significance can mean.
We think that by using matrices we are being rigorous. But our efforts do not command the respect we hope for. Mr Blue described the product of GLVIA3 thus:
‘My thoughts are far more radical. I have long held the view that GLVIA (in its successive editions) is pseudo-science and overly complicates what surely should be pretty straightforward judgment-calls concerning landscape and visual impact. The fact that a whole industry of vested interests has built up round the “methodology” tells me that something is very wrong – as soon as simple things become the property of those in the know then it’s time to become iconoclastic. “GLVIA-babble” as I call it, I try my utmost to ban it from evidence and ask my landscape / visual impact witness to write up their evidence in a jargon-free matrix-free manner – it’s hard work and occasionally I get there! So rather than tinker, I’d put the book on the bonfire, but I know I’m a lone voice on this.’
This comment was seen by Mr White, who promptly replied:
‘Not a lone voice. I completely agree. I largely ignore it all. I find a simple pithy phrase like “developed countryside” or “deep countryside” is much more effective.’
Pseudo-science: is this fair? No one can deny that we are dealing with a complex subject. The word “landscape” contains ideas of perception, history, identity, culture, and requires an eye for understanding spatial forms and patterns as well as the knowledge of physical qualities of the earth such as topography, geomorphology, vegetative cover, usage and movement. It is to our credit that we try to organise our thoughts with comprehensible notions that are capable of being defined, analysed and discussed; and I think we do this to a very high technical standard and the best of the profession is able to explain why we respond as we do to what we see when we venture out into the physical world.
It is when we try to answer questions about change that we seem to run into trouble. Often you will see at an appeal two landscape architects making fundamentally different judgements about the effects and significance of change; and the singular distinguishing difference of their respective positions will be that one is paid by the proposer of the development, and the other is paid by the local authority or the pressure group opposing. This in itself would not be bad if the arguments were about the analysis of survey information or the design of a proposal, or the options for mitigatory and compensatory proposals: all of which you see in ecology evidence. But it always comes down to methodology: which box the matrix places the scale of significance, and the judgement – good or bad; positive or negative; beneficial or adverse. This does not reflect well on the profession for it makes us look like hired guns prepared to act as advocates for a case, for a sum. I have even come across a case where a major, national, engineering consultancy, conducting a GLVIA 3 assessment of suitable housing sites around a town in England, recommended a site as suitable when commissioned by a housebuilder and then, three years later, carrying out a similar exercise for the local planning authority, again using GLVIA3, concluded the same site was unsuitable. The overt link between the payer and the song does our profession no good whatsoever; and it is the looseness of our standard text that enables this to happen.
Mr Orange seized on this point in his critique of GLVIA3:
‘However its lack of a prescriptive (or even recommended) methodology means that LVIAs may be transparent, but rarely comparable, and the scope for argument over what are essentially judgmental issues is absurdly high. For example:
(i) A lack of a proper yardstick - I repeatedly come across LVIAs which put the impacts of the development of a peripheral greenfield site adjacent to a 20th century in the top category of significance. This cannot rationally be right – surely that category would be confined to an open cast mine in an AONB. Yet the response is that it is for the assessor to undertake a bespoke methodology – which all too often means pitching it too high or too low;
(ii) A failure to properly define terms - Surely the Institute could define terms for the use of assessors which are clear, for example, ‘significance’ as a term is applied in multiple different ways both in the grading of an outcome of an LVIA and a threshold as to whether effects ‘count’ in terms of EIA. Surely the judicious use of a thesaurus could avoid confusion;
(iii) Mitigation - In ecology there is a clear distinction between mitigation and compensation – even in GB terms we now talk about compensation for GB loss. Yet the 3rd edition doesn’t deal with developing one parcel of land and ‘compensating’ for the loss by improving other areas, such as the creation of country parks, restoration of hedgerows etc. It feels as if landscape is about 15 years behind other areas. In any event the lack of a clear methodology means that how mitigation is dealt with and ‘fed in’ to an assessment is at the discretion of the assessor reducing the comparability of LVIAs. Surely a ‘this is how it’s generally done’ methodology and if you deviate justify why would help.
(iv) Who is responsible for what - I tire of the number of times that LPAs don’t agree (or even do agree) simple things like methodology and views and then they become an issue at inquiry – either because it helps an argument or because a new professional has been appointed. A section which says what is expected and what should be agreed would be transformational. That could be done in the manner that a Transport Assessment is done – a scoping exercise (methodology, representative viewpoints, time of year, whether montages are needed etc) could be prepared and then agreed before the LVIA is finalised. The PPG could then pick up the consequences of not submitting/agreeing basic things as a costs issue.’
What Mr Orange is pointing to is our lack of some generally accepted calibration of the criteria for judgement. Surprisingly, given the circumstances in which almost all LVIA reports are commissioned, GLVIA3 makes no attempt to relate its terms or bases for judgement to the planning context in which these reports are to be considered. The justification for this is given in the preface to the third edition, which states that it ‘…seeks to avoid reflecting a specific point in time, recognising that legislative, statutory and policy contexts change so that guidance that is tied to contexts will quickly become dated and potentially out of step.’ But that is to ignore the fact that behind planning policies in England lies a National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) that says important things about the environment, the countryside, landscapes, landscape value, Green Belt, etc. that are intended to inform both plan-making and planning decisions.
This is not planning policy so much as the stuff from which policies are made; and we can expect it to have a life that can run comfortably with renewed editions of the guidelines text. I think the reason why it is not mentioned in the third edition has more to do with the contemporaneous writing of the first NPPF with the drafting of GLIVIA3, but whatever the reason, to claim that ignoring the NPPF is a virtue for our methodology is preposterous for it leaves a vacuum in place of a shared perspective or “a common yardstick”. This is where GLVIA 3 calls for the professional to use “personal judgement”, but all too often it is the brief that you have from your client that shapes the point of view. This is the enabler that makes it possible for two landscape architects to claim compliance with GLVIA3, arrive at completely different judgements, and then proceed to slag off the opposite view by criticising their methodology. The experience is distasteful for those who have to suffer it; boring to those who have to listen or read the attack; and it besmirches our reputation as a profession. We need a common yardstick, and that has to come from national policies and guidance of which the NPPF is one in England (another is the draft National Model Design Code, whose consultation stage was published in February 2021). It seems to me that from such documents we may be able to form a set of parameters to inform and guide judgement. We should at least try to form some common ground for making our judgements, with a remit determined by planning law and guidance.
At the heart of this matter is the judgement of development on ‘greenfield’ sites. Like Green Belt, the term greenfield is prejudicial because it conjures up positive image of fertile, natural worlds that often do not match the chemically addicted, shaved monocultures of much of modern farming. It dismays me that there is an emphasis in the LVIA process on concluding with a series of emphatic judgements. Charlie Banner put it thus:
‘Herein lies the main difficulty I have seen with how GLVIA3 is applied in practice. The way it is applied by most landscape professionals and decision makers (PINS Inspectors and LPA officers), any new built form on greenfield land will be deemed adverse in landscape character terms (due to the ‘loss’ of rural or similar character) and to the extent that it is visible, it will be deemed to cause an adverse visual effect (because visible built form is to be introduced where none currently is).
Accordingly, the assessment which is intended to inform a decision not as to whether greenfield development is in principle good or bad, but whether this is the right amount and kind of such development in the right place, is focused on considering: how much of a bad thing is this? If this is how GLVIA3 is to be applied, there is a mismatch between the methodological framework within which the landscape assessment is to be undertaken and the policy framework within which the decision which that assessment informs is to be undertaken.
It may be said in response that GLVIA3 does in fact permit decisions that landscape and visual changes are beneficial or neutral, rather than necessarily negative. Thus in relation to landscape character para. 5.37 provides: ‘One of the more challenging issues is deciding whether the landscape effects should be categorised as positive or negative. It is also possible for effects to be neutral in their consequences for the landscape. An informed professional judgement should be made about this and the criteria used in reaching the judgement should be clearly stated. They might include, but should not be restricted to:
• The degree to which the proposal fits with existing character
• The contribution to the landscape that the development may make in its own right, usually by virtue of good design, even if it is in contrast to existing character.’
And in relation to visual effects, para. 6.29 provides: ‘As with landscape effects an informed professional judgement should be made as to whether the visual effects can be described as positive or negative (or in some cases neutral) in their consequences for views and visual amenity. This will need to be based on a judgement about whether the changes will affect the quality of the visual experience for those groups of people who will see the changes, given the nature of the existing views.’
In practice, however, any prospect that these paragraphs will enable new housing development on a greenfield site to be judged beneficial, either in relation to landscape character or in relation to visual effect, is largely if not wholly illusory. Neither paragraph offers any steer on how the effects of such development could be judged to be positive (or neutral) and the reality is that the overwhelming majority of landscape professionals and Planning Inspectors I have encountered would consider that new built development does not ‘fit with existing character’ of a greenfield site (and thus cannot be positive or neutral in landscape character terms applying para. 5.37) and that it negatively ‘affects the quality of the visual experience’ compared to an unbuilt green field (and thus cannot be positive or neutral in terms of visual effects applying para. 6.29).’
Clearly, there are cases when development would have significant adverse landscape and visual effects, but GLVIA3 does not give us an effective gauge by which we can sort the wheat from the chaff. Can it ever be the case that building homes on farm fields next to existing homes can be judged at a planning stage as being a change that will be a ‘permanent, major, adverse effect’” on local landscape character, irrespective of how it is done? How could anyone think this is possible, let alone write it? The presumption reeks of hubris on a massive scale, and seems to me a statement that is simply intellectually impossible to justify.
Mr White wrote about a scheme that he had been personally involved, where:
‘I got the council’s witness to agree our development had the potential to be beautiful. An unqualified beautiful. But of course the GLVIA had my witness having to admit all kinds of moderate-minor adverse impacts. Because GLVIA largely assumes new development is bad.’
We do not live in a Manichean world in which all change is either good or bad. Some change is just change, neither good nor bad. With antecedents that include EIA legislation, I understand the imperative in LVIA work to seek out whether or not proposed changes to the environment will result in significant harm. But landscape is not like air, or water, or soil chemistry or biology, each of which can identify harm to that which makes our environment liveable and sustainable. Judgements about landscape are nuanced and, although they can give rise to considerations about the sustainability of a proposed change, this is not always the case. Nor are most LVIAs part of a larger EIA.
Perhaps we should be giving some thought to the role of a Landscape Architect when called upon to write a LVIA for planning purposes? What are we supposed to be doing? In Mr Orange’s opinion,
‘Anyone who has ever been to an inquiry would realise that there is a confusion over what a landscape architect’s job actually is. Thus, does her/his work inform the planning balance or determine it (how many proofs by such professionals end by asking for the appeal to be allowed/dismissed). There is confusion over whether such work should encompass heritage, ecology, detailed policy analysis, public opinion, map regression, townscape morphology – which is all good work for the lawyers but a failure of the 3rd edition not to be clear.’
This was seconded by Mr Blonde:
‘I agree with [Mr Orange] that the role of the landscape witness is often unclear. A case in point is the approach to Green Belt. Since Turner and Sam Smith, landscape experts have been opining on the impact of development on the visual dimension of openness. This often creates confusion about whose ‘job’ it is to assess different impacts. Greater clarity in GLVIA on the landscape witness’ role and the relevance of GLVIA guidance would help.’
I remember this was a cardinal point raised by Charlie Banner QC in the Landscape Matters debate:
‘… it is necessary to appreciate what the purpose of LVA/LVIA is. The assessment is not an abstract academic exercise. Its purpose is to inform a decision. In the context of greenfield residential development, that decision – stripped to its essentials - involves answering the question I outlined a moment ago: is this the right amount and the right kind of development on the right greenfield site? (Not: is greenfield development in principle good or bad).’
There were some points of support for GLVIA 3. Mr Orange commented:
‘Compared to the GLVIA 2nd edition (the blue book), having the 3rd edition is a substantial improvement. Where it does provide guidance then it is helpful (eg the approach to private views/value etc)…’
Which is good; but as Ms Brown noted there are still problems with how the book is written and she suggested that only a small part of its 157 pages is important:
‘I’m planning on writing a piece in due course - a treatise in defence of the purple book! … I find it makes for a lot of fun cross examination, there are about 5 pages that actually matter, and inspectors don’t seem terribly interested. There seems to be less and less interest in landscape, perhaps because it’s become over-complicated? I’m definitely not in the bonfire camp - I’m far too attached, but there are most certainly improvements to be made. I think it could be done in about 12 pages.’
Mr Blonde noted a problem with the use of language:
‘If it is meant to assist non-professionals in understanding LV effects then it has demonstrably failed. A plain English summary or companion guide would help. There is an inconsistency in terminology, which could be fixed by a clear and easily understood glossary.’
And Mr Orange returned to the idea of the imbalance between those parts of GLVIA 3 that regularly appear in inquiries and those that do not:
‘My perspective is partial – I deal with advisory work and appeals usually when there is a dispute, but it is nonetheless striking that large chunks of the purple book are never referred to, whereas a dozen key paragraphs are referenced over and over again. I know that the 2nd edition was authored by professionals who were regularly at inquiry, I don’t know if that’s the case for the 3rd edition. However, why not have a chapter on appeals which picks up what the job of the professional is at inquiry – if nothing else it will reduce the impression that is all too often garnered that a landscape professional (on either side) is acting as a hired gun to advocate a case…’
These recommendations are sound and they point to a need for something that is much leaner, clearer, less hung about with jargon, and which recognises the need for LVIAs to be something more than a litany of matrices. I particularly like the suggestion of a chapter on the role of the landscape professional in an appeal. Mr Orange continued with a brilliant piece of advice that should be taught on landscape design courses:
‘For my part I tell the landscape architects to dump all of their pseudo-science into an appendix and write their proofs as if they were explaining their impacts to my mother (a noted non-landscape architect).’
Or, in a more prosaic version, do what Mr Blonde recommends:
‘I’ve taken on board the GLVIA 3 recommendation to follow a more narrative approach to landscape/visual impacts but with greater and lesser degrees of success. I also tend to invite my landscape witnesses to ditch matrices or confine them to the darkest recesses of their appendices.’
Though much of this makes uncomfortable reading, and some of the comments point to a possibly growing dislike and contempt of our posturing, I am heartened that there is a recognition of the improvement between GLVIA2 and GLVIA3 and an acknowledgement that the third edition urges a more narrative approach. They just feel the need for us to go a bit further in improving our words, purposes and methods.
Of course, the above statements are the opinions of just a small number of planning barristers; and a random sample of a few is hardly authoritative. But the sample includes some names that would be recognised by any who regularly work on planning appeals. They do not like what they see, nor do they entirely believe in what we write; and they either have doubts about our methodology, or hold it in plain contempt. If such views are commonly held by the wider pool of planning barristers, or by planners and planning inspectors, then we have a problem, and no grounds for complacency.
I am reminded of Burns in his pew, regarding the airs and graces of Jenny, a fashionable young lady who was evidently very pleased with how she looked, dressed in her fineries, but who had a louse on her bonnet:
‘O Jenny, dinna toss your head,
An' set your beauties a' abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie's makin:
Thae winks an' finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin.
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n Devotion!’