The recommendations of the Glover panel’s Landscapes Review are not dissimilar to those in the 1998 Countryside Commission publication Protecting our Finest Countryside: Advice to Government. That was the last time government commissioned a review of the protected landscapes. There are three similarities between then and now:
- National Parks and AONB need better funding and governance,
- they deserve a higher profile in all parts and tiers of government,
- and they should form a more integrated system for protection of the character and environmental quality of these areas, but with scope for local distinction.
So has anything changed and does this report move things along? The answers are ‘no’ and ‘yes’. For a start, I do not think anyone would miss the clumsy title Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and its clunky acronym. The Landscapes Review was commissioned by Defra (or rather agreed to by former Minister Michael Gove when propositioned by Julian Glover), so the scope is England only.
In the intervening 20 odd years, AONBs and National Parks have been trying to work together more effectively. Sometimes it has worked really well (the joint publication of “So much more than the View” and the Northern Chain Local Nature Partnership are good examples), but at other times it has proved very difficult (the unseemly scramble to be first through Defra’s door with an agri-environment scheme offer in 2016 was less edifying).
True collaboration between National Park Authorities and AONB Joint Committees has always seemed to float just out of reach. Glover wants to make this a reality by fusing the landscapes into one family: the National Landscapes Service. This makes a lot of sense. The scale and scope of the protected landscapes is national. Their importance is at least national and in many cases international. However, if they can ever get beyond mere cooperation if, as the Report says, every landscape will keep its title, its funding, its rank and status is debatable.
A more robust national landscapes system
The lack of collaboration and integration across the National Parks and AONBs is not the Review’s only criticism. The Review points out that the underlying elements of natural beauty have continued to decline despite the designations. There has always been a problem is setting meaningful metrics by which to measure success in protecting a landscape’s character. The responsible authorities and teams have no control over, and often little influence of, the things that are changing landscape character or the processes that preserve and strengthen it: pollution, farming regimes and their subsidies, wildlife health and diversity, afforestation, land ownership, and even some land-use planning and major infrastructure planning.
Mega nature recovery
Whether the National Landscapes Service can do more for nature (“Alive for Nature and Beauty”), is a moot point. The six proposals in this section sound good, but would be hard to deliver on and could be watered down by other vested interests. Crucial proposals here include using national landscapes as the backbone of Nature Recovery Networks, and a central place for national landscapes in new Environmental Land Management Schemes Glover seeks to strengthen the status of the AONB Management Plans and improving the evidence base for each one. This may be unaffordable. The kind of data that an AONB Unit needs to evidence such a plan is hard to come by or to collate even if it exists and gathering new data at the scale and level of the protected landscapes is hugely expensive. It will all depend on how the National Landscape Service is funded and how it deploys those funds to the various landscape partnerships.
Reinforcing ranger services
The National Ranger Service is a sound idea. It would need to be backed with proper training and resources. If we can create a good recruitment and training model for rangers, with a career path and opportunities for professional development, then why stop at designated landscapes? The Forestry Commission has had rangers for decades and local authorities used to have active ranger services: some have even managed to retain them. If the personnel are properly embedded in their respective organisations there should be no conflict over which master they serve.
Word dust amidst changing politics?
A real threat to all this is the chaotic politics which prevail at the time of publication. What future government is going to want to endorse any new policy that came about during this toxic ‘Brexit’ ‘Zombie Government’ period? Every part of our national political structure might want to forget these years as soon as possible. They will want to shake the dust of Brexit-chaos off their shoes and move on just as fast as their majority will take them. But let us forget that for the moment and enjoy reading a report that is both critical in its observations, ambitious in its recommendations and inspiring in the its optimism about the potential of our finest landscapes to enrich people’s lives and to safeguard their environmental qualities.