Conservationists are warning that the British countryside is under an assault from development on greenfield "beauty spots", with increasing encroachment from housing, roads and wind farms.
Nine sites considered among the "jewels in the crown" of the UK's natural heritage have been highlighted by the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) as examples of the way in which protected landscapes are being irrevocably changed by the pressures of development.
Despite being situated within national parks or designated areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONB), the sites are all the subject of proposed or progressing projects that campaigners claim show the "appalling double standards" being applied to planning laws.
They include a wind farm of 20 turbines up to 90m high adjacent to the Lincolnshire Wolds AONB, which opponents say was only given planning permission after plans for a much smaller scheme were rejected. The larger scheme was presented under national infrastructure rules, allowing local objections to be overruled.
Tom Oliver, head of rural policy at the CPRE, said: "The whole basis on which the nation's most beautiful countryside is there to be enjoyed by us all is called into question by a series of damaging proposals.
"Time and again, it appears that the Government or a local council is tearing up the rules when a significant conflict arises between one of our finest landscapes and another interest."
Campaigners argue that too often where conservation laws clash with factors such as local support for a scheme or where a scheme reflects a government priority, it is the beauty spot which loses.
Among the most criticised projects is a £79m bypass north of Weymouth, Dorset, which opponents say will cause extensive damage to four separate protected areas, including ancient woodland and the landscape that inspired Thomas Hardy.
Work has already begun at two of the nine sites highlighted by the CPRE: a bypass to the A590 road around the hamlets of High and Low Newton which cuts through the Lake District National Park; and the Lincolnshire wind turbines, which opponents claim will ruin views once lauded by Lord Tennyson.
The CPRE said the threat to beauty spots comes from a variety of schemes.
Nigel Mansell, the former Formula One world champion, has run into heavy opposition from residents in the Blackdown Hills AONB in Devon for his £3m scheme to develop a racing circuit with a 280-seat restaurant and large administration block. Opponents say the circuit will damage the AONB with increased noise and traffic.
Mansell, who has called the objections "spurious and untrue", said the circuit will be used for go-kart racing rather than racing cars and is sound-proofed.
Similarly, plans for a new stadium within the Sussex Downs AONB for Brighton and Hove Albion FC, which were approved after a long-running planning wrangle, are now the subject of a High Court challenge to try to force the club to consider sites elsewhere in the city.
Despite the decline in rural amenities and farming, the countryside is becoming an ever more attractive place to live. The rural population has increased by more than 14 per cent in the past 25 years. The numbers moving from cities to the countryside each year have increased by a third since 2001 to 103,000 in 2003.
Campaigners argue that the pressure on protected greenfield areas is therefore likely to increase without a clear signal from the Government that it considers such sites out of bounds.
They cite the example of proposals to create a £1bn science and manufacturing park around Wye, Kent, creating 12,500 jobs. The scheme, which has been put forward jointly with the local authority and Kent County Council, would be funded by the construction of 4,000 new homes in the area, which is situated inside the Kent Downs AONB.
Mr Oliver said: "It has to be made clear by the Government and councils that protected areas will be just that. Instead, we are getting situations like in Wye where it seems the authorities are supporting the schemes they will ultimately have to approve or dismiss."Reuse content