National Landscapes – what to expect for the future of National Parks and AONBs

Over the weekend the keenly anticipated Landscapes Review was published, led by Julian Glover. Here Public Policy Officer, Karina Russell, reflects upon its findings and recommendations.

Back in May last year, Michael Gove commissioned Julian Glover to review England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). It’s now been published and aims to answer the question of how we can reform our protected landscapes to deliver better what the nation needs from them.

We’re a few months shy of the 70th anniversary of the landmark National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which granted protection for many of the country’s most beautiful and special landscapes. With a very different country, facing very different pressures than those faced 70 years ago, it feels about time to review how these landscapes are faring in practice – and what more we can do to protect, support and enable them to flourish better.

Nearly three quarters of the National Trust’s land lies within National Parks and AONBs. We treasure and look after these landscapes for ever, for everyone, and want to make sure they can remain special for everyone who lives, works in or visits them. Over the past year we have engaged with the review in a number of ways, including by hosting the panel in some of the landscapes we look after in designated areas, so that we could highlight the huge potential they could deliver if better supported.

We wanted to see a clear vision for how designated landscapes can deliver better for nature and support the 25 Year Environment Plan. We also thought that AONBs needed to be strengthened, with greater independence and influence to allow them to protect and manage their landscapes better. Importantly, we felt that there needed to be a clearer focus on how landscapes can benefit everyone, including those living in towns and cities. We wanted National Parks and AONBs to have clearer expectations about how they should be engaging in some of the most pressing concerns of the 21st century, such as public health, climate change and wellbeing. Read more about our submission here

Dunwich Heath and Beach, Suffolk. Dunwich Heath is in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and has an abundance of wildlife to discover.

So, what did the review find and recommend? Overall it concluded that although there is much good in our protected landscapes, we should not be satisfied with what we have at the moment as it falls short of what can be achieved, and what the public wants.

The final report contains a number of policy proposals, 27 in fact, most of which the Trust welcomes and echo what we have been asking for in relation to our most special landscapes.

Perhaps the most significant proposal is that national landscapes should have a renewed mission to recover and enhance nature, and be supported and held account for this delivery by the creation of a new National Landscapes Service. This service will bring together England’s National Parks and AONBs under one body. Amongst many things, the National Landscapes Service will set the vision and strategy for England’s 44 national landscapes from which their own Management Plans will develop, hold them to account for carrying out these plans, represent them as a single voice and support them with high quality services.

Other particular highlights of the recommendations include:

  • natural landscapes becoming a central focus for Nature Recovery Networks and the new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMs)
  • a strengthened place for national landscapes in the planning system
  • a stronger mission to connect all people with our national landscapes, that cater for and improve health and wellbeing
  • expanding volunteering in these landscapes
  • and a 1,000-strong ranger service.

View looking out to sea through the fjord-like entrance to the harbour and village at Boscastle, Cornwall.

We’ve welcomed the review and we share the view that we should be doing all we can to help as many people as possible to access our amazing countryside and to help nature flourish there. We fully support the ambitions to break down some of the barriers to access, so that people from all walks of life feel welcome and experience the joy of our natural world. But, as ever, the devil is in the detail, and understanding how these proposals fit in, improve up and don’t duplicate existing work in protected landscapes will be vital.

The proposed National Landscapes Service is great to see and could end the current fragmented system of landscape protection, supporting national landscapes in safeguarding their special features for generations to come. But it’ll be important to build on the work of existing organisations like Natural England and the National Parks, rather than simply starting from scratch.

We’re also pleased to see the reviews emphasis on AONBs as part of our “National Landscapes”. They can be overlooked when attention is focused on the better-known National Parks like the Lake District, but they’re just as valuable in landscape terms and it’s just as important to protect and enhance them. New statutory purpose for National Parks and AONBs are also welcome, along with the greater scrutiny of their management plans, and we look forward to discussing this in more detail with our national landscapes and the Government.

Among the more inventive proposals, we are interested in the concept of National Park Cities and how these could embrace green belts. Whilst green belts remain an important planning designation, the Trust has already started thinking about ways they can deliver more for the public and for nature, and we believe that Government and local authorities should be thinking more about how to make this happen.

However, questions remain around how the 1,000-strong nationwide ranger service will work. It is vital that this service complements and does not duplicate, the passionate and dedicated team of rangers already in place in our protected landscapes, working for the National Trust and other conservation organisations.

The review was thorough and at 168 pages long, there is still a lot to digest. So, going forward we will continue to look in more detail the proposals, for instance in understanding how national landscapes fit in with Nature Recovery Networks.

We will be keeping a keen eye on developments, so we can help to support and shape the proposals in order ensure our most special landscapes are secured for the public and for nature for generations to come.

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