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MICHAEL WELBANK: Sparks will fly if planning is not controlled

PUBLISHED: 15:36 22 July 2009 | UPDATED: 16:19 07 September 2010

The many acres of open natural landscape are a distinctive and popular feature of Hampstead Heath. They are visually pleasing, provide a rich variety of wildlife habitats and make an important contribution bio-diversity. But to appreciate this landscape

The many acres of open natural landscape are a distinctive and popular feature of Hampstead Heath. They are visually pleasing, provide a rich variety of wildlife habitats and make an important contribution bio-diversity. But to appreciate this landscape solely from within the Heath itself misses its relationship with the wider topography and with the surrounding areas.

In their haste to develop and expand, some cities suffer by failing to give any expression at all to the underlying land form around them. Indeed as urban areas become more crowded and busier it can often be difficult to perceive any underlying land form at all. But the Heath provides an outstanding example as a place from which its topographical context can be clearly sensed. But does it even matter whether this is seen or not? Yes it does.

At a regional scale the basin cradling London is formed to the north by the Hampstead Highgate ridge and to the south by the Surrey hills and beyond to the North Downs. To be aware of where Hampstead Heath stands in this vast landform can provide a contentment to the human spirit; it reminds Londoners of their continuing relationship to the land and is a strong enough feature to survive the impact of future development.

The appeal this all has for Londoners can be seen so clearly whenever there is one of the classic celebratory bonfire chains across this country. There is always buzz of expectation and wonder running through the bonfire watchers on Parliament Hill, anxious to catch the first sighting of the answering bonfire away over in Surrey, as it flickers into life. Allow a nostalgic thought: it is a pity that there has not been any cause for a national bonfire chain across the country for a very long time now.

The topographical relationship of the Heath to the land around is clear enough along its southern boundary where the land beyond is lower, thus providing fine long views across the valley and also views into the heart of the city.

This has led to the establishment of protected strategic views, now as much an essential part of the Heath as the ponds or the fairs.

Nearer still are views over neighbouring boroughs and it is difficult to think that the density of development in these areas will ever ruin these longer views.

But the situation is different on the north eastern face of the Heath along the valley of the Highgate chain of ponds. Here the land beyond the Heath is higher, allowing a very different relationship to result between the Heath and surrounding development.

One flank of this valley lies within the Heath boundaries; this is open land and protected by all manner of planning designations and by the terms of the order transferring the Heath to the Corporation. The other flank of this valley, the Highgate slopes, contains a mix of trees, residential development and scattered pockets of land designated open space.

The wooded Highgate slopes rising up beyond the Heath to a peak expressed dramatically by the spire of St Michaels, provide a wonderful sense of openness stretching far beyond the actual Heath boundaries. Conversely the natural character of the Heath provides a highly desirable and attractive prospect for residents living on the slopes.

There is a mutuality here which should be maintained for the benefit of local residents and Heath users but alas without any specific planning policies to achieve this.

Fundamentally this is a landscape issue, or perhaps more accurately an issue of respecting the underlying land form. Despite the fact that it is in part developed land and in part open countryside this valley formation presents a coherent landscape feature and should be respected.

In the countryside proper there are a number of planning designations, both national and local, to protect key landscape features but there few means to ensure that urban landscape features supporting a variety of land uses are properly respected.

Of course development in these areas must continue but the form it takes must respect wider landscape considerations. Hence the urgent need to re-establish clear policies for the guidance of development around Hampstead Heath.

Michael Welbank is the new chairman of the Hampstead Heath management committee

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