I was walking up Tavy Cleave in the Dartmoor National Park, listening to ring ouzels and whinchat, when the Sunday Telegraph was plopping through the population’s letterboxes early on 27 May. I don’t normally pay attention to the Sunday Telegraph, but this one had a surprising front page.
It announced the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) review of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), heralded in the government’s 25-year environment plan. It also confirmed that the review would be led by writer and journalist Julian Glover. In the past such statements were made in parliament first. Not any more. The vigilant Campaign for National Parks was ready with a quick response at 6.30am—while I was standing in the rain, binoculars poised, in Tavy Cleave.
The Sunday Telegraph and the statement on the government website are extremely positive.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove has today committed to conserve and enhance England’s most cherished landscapes …
… an independent panel will look at how these iconic landscapes meet our needs in the 21st century—including whether there is scope for the current network of 34 AONBs and 10 national parks to expand
The review will also explore how access to these beloved landscapes can be improved. I take that to mean responsible freedom-to-roam within these places, and better access to and within them by public transport. I hope I am right. Certainly, in his own article in the Sunday Telegraph Michael Gove goes out of his way to celebrate public access. He says Inspired by the great Liberal Sir Arthur Hobhouse, the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was introduced as a ‘recreational gift to Britain’s returning Second World War servicemen and women’ to recognise, conserve and enhance access to landscapes ‘of national importance and quality’. Yes!
Weakening or undermining their existing protections or geographic scope will not be part of the review, which will instead focus on how designated areas can boost wildlife, support the recovery of natural habitats and connect more people with nature.
Michael Gove wants to guarantee our most precious landscapes are in an even healthier condition for the next generation and says that the goal of the review is not to diminish their protection in any way, but to strengthen it in the face of present-day challenges.
Julian Glover says that our protected landscapes are England’s finest gems.
Case for extension
The terms of reference are here and, excitingly, include ‘the case for extension or creation of new designated areas’. There are plenty which deserves such consideration: the Chilterns and Cotswolds which suffer from immense development pressures and suburbanisation, Dorset and East Devon with its magnificent Jurassic Coast, the Forest of Dean and the South Pennines, gritty, industrial and worthy of recognition—to name a few.
If government is serious about extending these areas it will need to amend the process of designation which is slow, painstaking and complex—and it will need to give Natural England (NE), the designating agency, the resources to do the job. I was a board member of the Countryside Agency, NE’s predecessor, when it designated the New Forest and the South Downs as national parks and both took a great deal of time and money.
The review will also need to bite on other government departments.
Highways England is proposing to route the A27 Arundel bypass through the South Downs National Park, destroying six hectares of ancient woodland. Ten national charities have written to the Secretaries of State for Transport and the Environment in protest. A horrific new dual carriageway is also proposed in the Peak District National Park; the Friends of the Peak District are leading the campaign against it.
The Department of Housing, Communities and Local Government is proposing to amend the National Planning Policy Framework so as to remove from the paragraph on designated landscapes the phrase ‘which have the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty’. Without this, the national parks and AONBs will be at far greater risk of development.
Our most precious landscapes cannot be in an even healthier condition for the next generation unless government as a whole follows Michael Gove’s lead.
The world has changed since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 created national parks and AONBs. This review must secure the best protection and far greater resources for our designated areas, enable new ones to be created in a more streamlined way, and improve and increase public access to and within these special places. Agricultural funding after Brexit can help to procure more and better access. But for our designated landscapes to have the treatment they deserve, government must invest in them.
What better 70th birthday gift to the national parks and AONBs?