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ECOS 38 (1): Champions of grassroots conservation: A future for local authority countryside services?

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This article discusses key messages in the author’s 2015 book, The Rise and Fall of Countryside Management – a historical account.1 The book explores the challenges and achievements of local authority countryside services and considers the uncertain future they face in the midst of ongoing funding cuts.

Local government’s unsung heroes?

Local authority countryside services (also called countryside management services, and countryside management projects) evolved through the 1960s and into the 1990s. These community-facing services were designed to bring professional standards to ranger services, country parks, and other countryside management tasks. Many staff entering this sector cared passionately about the environment, the local landscape, communities, and their work. In hindsight, this was often to the exclusion of issues such as local economies, supposed ‘value-for-money’, and the impacts of the insidious privatisation of local authority services.

My research has shown that these services in fact provided significant economic returns for often modest investments, and yet this did not register fully with local authority decision-makers, politicians, and budget-holders. In the harsh economic climate of the last decade, this failure to communicate benefits beyond the obvious has compounded other aspects of cuts in local authority and government agency provision.

The history of these unappreciated services, their evolution and substantial demise are the subject of my book: The Rise and Fall of Countryside Management – a historical account.1 The study was based on national reviews of countryside services carried out in 2005 and 2013. This provides overviews and examples of how these services developed during the 1960s and 1970s, a period of radical and pragmatic vision, followed by the mergers of parent agencies followed by politically-imposed austerity cuts. These projects were developed to deliver environmental improvements , especially in and around major conurbations, and in areas with despoiled lands, and often disadvantaged and disengaged communities. These environments often have challenging land-use situations, with low investment, where ‘hope value’ keeps land idle and little pro-active countryside management occurs unless local authorities provide the stimulus .

One better-known initiative to emerge from this national programme was the Groundwork Trusts, established to coordinate public-private partnerships to help the environmental regeneration of degraded  landscapes and down-at-heel communities. In local government however, the ‘countryside’ services extended across diverse areas from countryside and woodlands management, to ecologists and archaeologists, to planning and access officers, and to specialist staff in biological records centres, museums’ natural history departments, and in education and extension services. Today, most of these once vibrant components of local government have quietly slipped away; the losses and consequences mostly unquestioned.

Enablers of change

At their optimum, local authority countryside services, engaged and educated local people, helped to rejuvenate local economies through leisure, tourism and outdoor sports, and provided growth-poles for inward investment. Services worked across geographic and structural boundaries often in partnership with government agencies such as the former Countryside Agency, and later, the devolved equivalents in England, Wales and Scotland. Projects collaborated with local businesses, and with voluntary bodies such as Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, and the National Trust. This was a prime example of the Big Society in action in the conservation sector before current politicians, somewhat cynically, took up that mantra whilst simultaneously axing the means of delivery.

By acting in a catalyst role, Countryside Management Projects helped to lever significant resources to disadvantaged areas and often generated self-sustaining community groups and networks. This created major benefits for wildlife, heritage, healthy communities, quality of life, education, and property values.

Filey Country Park, Yorkshire

Local influence, democracy and advocacy

The democratic accountability of countryside services is part of their distinction. They represented the council out in the community, but were mostly fleet of foot and non-bureaucratic in their style, which helped their local acceptability and their influence. Their staff, including, countryside planning officers, ecologists, and woodland managers provided internal advocates and advisors to elected members and decision makers in local government. The loss of such services has resulted in local crises like the Sheffield street trees fiasco (see my blog for details). I suggest that with appropriate senior staff in post, the current situation and the excess expenditure already of over half a million pounds, would not have occurred.

National standards, training, and value-for-money

An early goal of countryside services was to establish national standards and training, and a career progression in order to attract high calibre people to this new profession. Countryside projects and associated services recruited professionally-trained staff in a context of national standards and support. These officers and the projects established long-term continuity to deliver work on the ground to support local communities and partnerships. My research found that for every pound invested there was leverage of around £10 reported, plus much added value of community and volunteer efforts.

Austerity and politically-driven cuts

Cut to the bone, many countryside services have been totally axed. Some survive and have adapted with good practice and innovation. Others survive in more affluent areas, where the role can link to economic performance and thus services are supported. Some services have harnessed externally-generated funds, but this is the exception and not the norm. As budgets shrink and experienced staff move on or retire, the ability to adapt and innovate is compromised.

Behind the scenes, even the highest-profile National Parks barely survive intact. Government recently guaranteed a degree of ring-fencing of budgets. However, this is too little, too late for many and cuts are still severe and worsening. In parallel to this, core countryside services and skills have haemorrhaged from local authorities and agencies; and for example, nationally-recognised, professional training and standards have gone.

Unintended consequences of different deliveries  

Voluntary-sector NGOs have been increasingly involved in delivering aspects of countryside services, and indeed, they have been doing so since the 1970s and 1980s. In recent years they have stepped in to deliver selected parts of countryside services, though often with volunteer or part-time, temporary staff, and mostly unqualified and inexperienced workers.

At the same time, many local communities, especially in poorer areas, are on the outside of most major voluntary organisations. The result is that local environmental democracy is lost or watered-down. Furthermore, NGO–led projects often target less challenging areas with more affluent communities (their core membership), not areas of need or poorer communities, unless there are specific grants for this.

Whilst NGOs and Lottery funding can help deliver countryside services, and much formerly professional work is done with inexperienced or even volunteer staff and little long-term continuity, these still need to be paid for. Lottery-funded projects often last up to three years and are then replaced by new initiatives. This creates a shifting baseline as we move from strategic delivery to fads and fashions. Furthermore, my research demonstrates how much Lottery-funded work is done without proper surveys or approved management plans. In these cases, projects can actually (accidentally) damage the resources that they try to conserve! In addition, project aims move seamlessly from conservation outputs to leisure, tourism and sports that may actually compromise conservation but are seen as high profile, income-generating, and ‘inherently good’. Issues such as sustainability, limits of acceptable change, carrying capacity, and site- or species-sensitivity, can be quietly put to one side by these new and emerging agendas. Nature conservation and heritage can be inconvenient when there’s money to be made through site-based recreation. In many cases, officers now charged with responsibility for sites, are not from a conservation background, have little  experience of nature or heritage management, and nay not realise the damage being done. In the past, one of the roles of local authority countryside services was to address issues of stakeholder conflicts and to help resolve problems. This role has largely gone.

Paying for benefits – the seen and unseen

So, here is a major problem at the core of misguided austerity cuts. The cost of environmental investment is borne by agencies and local government, but they don’t derive associated income unless central government grants it. Yet without these services, the other benefits including private business growth don’t happen. For a society that does not like paying taxes, there’s the rub, since cost and benefit are placed with different organisations and sectors.

A simple situation is that tax revenues from increased economic activity and diminished social costs associated with countryside management should be reinvested to maintain or enhance service delivery and increase benefits. It seems that current politicians, the media, and consequently, perhaps most of the public, want to cut agencies and local government to save ‘wasting taxpayers’ money’. They do not see, and are not told about, the hidden social and economic costs of such a strategy. I live near the Peak National Park and witness the huge numbers of affluent tourists and leisure visitors swarming to the area every weekend. The associated annual expenditure in the area is massive; supporting untold jobs in hospitality and retail across and around the Park. With this the case, is it not absurd that the Peak Park’s budget is cut year by year to a point of near collapse? In the Peak District, one of the most visited National Parks in the world, core services such as the former national education and training centre at Losehill Hall has long since gone. Rangers, ecologists, archaeologists, farm advisers, and others are not far behind; and yet the media report almost nothing of this loss and its consequences.

Pugneys Country Park, Wakefield, West Yorkshire

Why should we care?

It is unlikely that local authority countryside services that have been cut will be reinstated any time soon; but those good services which remain must be secured. In part, this means making the economic arguments more robustly, with clear examples,

and the sector itself has been poor at doing this. At the same time, the services need political champions and those are best cultivated by experienced officers – exactly the sort who have just retired! However, without such champions the countryside services will continue to decline. To fill the gap, at list in part, the key NGOs will need to step up to the plate; and the same arguments apply in terms of political support. A big challenge for the future of NGO countryside workers will be to achieve the same levels of professional training, status, and recognition as the countryside management sector achieved in its prime. For individuals, this may mean recognising that they are not, for example, just nature reserve wardens, but ‘countryside managers’. For the NGO bodies, they too need to recognise the need for nationally recognised career progressions, acceptable professional status and training, and other support. The downside for some organisations is that to achieve the necessary professional standards, they may have to pay the requisite salaries comparable with those in the public sector, and to provide training and membership support though bodies such as the Countryside Management Association. If this core ground can be secured, then maybe countryside management may be able to recover the losses and aspire once again to the vision of the 1960s and 1970s.

 Notes and references 

  1. Ian D. Rotherham (2015) The Rise and Fall of Countryside Management – a historical account. Routledge, London. *To buy this at a big discount email for details.

Ian D. Rotherham (2014) Eco-history: An Introduction to Biodiversity and Conservation. The White Horse Press, Cambridge.

Ian D. Rotherham (2017) An Introduction to Countryside Management. Wildtrack Publishing, Sheffield.  (in press)

Ian D. Rotherham

Professor of Environmental Geography, and Reader in Tourism and Environmental Change, Sheffield Hallam University.

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Rotherham, Ian “ECOS 38 (1): Champions of grassroots conservation: A future for local authority countryside services?” ECOS vol. 38(1), 2017, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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