Our view on Protected Landscapes

The Glover Review, which is looking at England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), has called for evidence about our protected landscapes. Below is our response to some of the key questions asked:

What do you think works overall about the present system of National Parks and AONBs in England? Add any points that apply specifically to only National Parks or AONBs

The 1949 Hobhouse review established the idea of 'long distance paths' which were always seen as integral to proper access to and through Protected Landscapes. "We also attach importance to the provision of long distance paths and bridleways in and between National Parks and Conservation Areas. There should be continuous routes which will enable walkers and riders to travel the length and breadth of the Parks, moving as little as possible on the motor roads" [p67]. The National Trails are the realisation of these ‘long distance paths’ connecting people to landscape.

Seventy years on, sixteen National Trails have been designated across England and Wales and are world-class long-distance paths helping people access, experience and enjoy our finest landscapes. These Trails are an integral part of the wider family of Protected Landscapes, (although not formally recognised as such in statute), traversing over 2,600 miles of coast and countryside. In addition, the creation of the England Coast Path in 2020 will significantly increase their reach – adding over 2,000 miles to the network and connecting to many more communities.

National Trails are a very cost-effective vehicle to deliver significant parts of the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan.

  1. Using and managing land sustainably - National Trails have often been the catalyst for sustainable land management along their corridors. Specifically, the practical management of access involves engagement with landowners and other stakeholders, with the Trail Partnerships coordinating different interests for the wider public benefit. National Quality Standards underpin work along the Trails and act as an exemplar for sustainable management of access. 
  2. Recovering nature and enhancing the beauty of landscapes - The creation of the England Coast Path and associated wider access rights for land between the Trail and the sea clearly demonstrate how National Trails are landscape-scale green infrastructure. Trail Partnerships and landowners have a fantastic opportunity to improve these corridors for biodiversity, landscape and access helping to reverse the last 50-years of biodiversity loss in the countryside. 
  3. Connecting people with the environment to improve health and wellbeing - Over 140 million visits to the countryside a year involve a National Trail. As such, the Trails play an important part in the government’s efforts to improve the health of our nation and to tackle issues such as obesity, diabetes and mental health. We are often the first introduction to the countryside for many young people. The role of National Trails as high-quality routes for green prescriptions has significant potential as we start to better understand the positive economies of preventative action rather than treatment.
  4. Increasing resource efficiency and reducing pollution and waste National Trails are a fantastic platform to promote sustainable access, reducing pollution and help lessen our footprint whilst connecting with nature. In the management of Trails local materials are prioritised for surfacing and furniture helping keep the sense of place and reduce environmental impact.
  5. Securing clean, healthy, productive and biologically diverse seas and oceans - The designation of the England Coast Path not only gives access to coastal landscapes and communities it also creates a unique platform to engage people in coastal issues. A more engaged public can help make a positive impact on the health of our seas.
  6. Protecting and improving our global environment the National Trails are an exemplar for international best practice in sustainable management of long-distance path corridors. As we build resilience to the network in response to climate change the solutions developed will be shared. In addition, the Trails offer a route in which government can connect with the millions of people using the network to engage and provide leadership on climate change and sustainable development.

What do you think does not work overall about the system and might be changed? Add any points that apply specifically to National Parks or AONBs

The National Trails already deliver many of the objectives of the Government’s 25-year Plan for the Environment now, in terms of economic and social contribution, access to magnificent countryside, and a contribution to the health and well-being of millions of people each year.  Unfortunately these benefits are precarious.  This is because the National Trails are not included as a statutory part of the Protected Landscapes Family. The result is a debilitating weakness in terms of planning protections and a steady year-on-year erosion in real terms of core government funding. Efforts by local authorities, community groups and charities are inevitably patchy, faced with the hard reality of insufficient resource to redress the gap in statutory planning recognition, coupled with the gap in core maintenance funding. The result is an overall decline across the network.  In too many places, Natural England National Trail quality standards are not being achieved, and with climate change and increasing public usage, it is likely that without action, the overall condition of the National Trails will deteriorate further.

The ambitious decision to enhance the National Trails by adding the 2000 mile English Coast Path to the network will add to the pressure on the existing maintenance funding pot and will create new challenges for local communities unless the gaps in protection legislation are addressed.

There is a need to secure and enhance the benefits which the National Trails deliver through statutory recognition, tighter planning arrangements and continuation of appropriate core-funding – i.e. there should be greater parity in the support and commitment from Government for National Trails when compared with National Parks and AONBs.

Of particular importance is security of the core maintenance grant over longer time-frames than the recent one-year settlements. In addition, ensuring this grant increases in-line with the significant increase in length of National Trails through the designation of new stretches of the England Coast Path.

Finally, the inclusion of National Trails Partnerships as statutory consultees through the National Planning Policy Framework would give more strength to helping protect and enhance the current network through the from the ‘environmental net gain’ principle for development.

What views do you have on whether areas should be given new designations? For instance, the creation of new National Parks or AONBs, or new types of designations for marine areas, urban landscapes or those near built-up areas. 

There is an opportunity to build on the existing South West Coast Path to create ‘a corridor for nature’, linking Protected Landscapes through an enhanced coastal margin, adjacent, and in some cases including, the new marine coastal conservation zones to protect the existing benefits from the impact of growth and climate change. In addition, this enhanced corridor for nature could be the catalyst for positive change to deliver the environment enhancement objectives of the Governments ‘25-year Plan to Improve the Environment’, and the underpinning objectives of the ‘Making Space for Nature’ Lawton Report. To secure these additional benefits, particularly where private landowners and farmers are involved, requires changes to both the future agricultural and conservation-related subsidy regime and in streamlining ‘natural capital’ governance in the South West.

Do you think the terms currently used are the right ones? Would you suggest an alternative title for AONBs, for instance and if so what?

With regards designations, National Parks are an internationally recognised brand, albeit with the English version being different to the common perception of ‘wilderness’ managed for wildlife not people. As IUCN Class V landscapes, AONBs have similar international legal identification as our National Parks, but very low recognition by the public nationally or internationally. Similarly, the designation of National Trails has low awareness beyond long-distance walkers.

However, the branding of specific protected landscapes has significant value regional, nationally and internationally. For example, people will have greater awareness of the Lake District, North Downs and South West Coast Path than their respective designations. This has been proven in fundraising, where people are much more willing to help support a named area than a generic designation. As such, rather than trying to find a new name for the designation of AONBs, time and money would be much better spent developing an awareness campaign for all our finest landscapes and magnificent countryside i.e. promoting the family of Protected Landscapes.

The review has been asked to consider how designated landscapes work with other designations such as National Trails, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), National Nature Reserves (NNRs) and Special Protected Areas (SPAs). Do you have any thoughts on how these relationships work and whether they could be improved?

The South West Coast Path National Trail runs to and through a National Park and five AONBs. In additions it connects: 1 UNESCO Biosphere Reserve; 2 UNESCO World Heritage Sites; 1 UNESCO Geopark; 5 Ramsar sites; 7 Special Protected Areas; 50 Nature reserves; 100’s of SSSIs; 13 Marine Conservation Zones; and 8 Special Areas of Conservation. The Trails Partnership interacts with some of the management bodies for these designations through an informal Stakeholder Group. However, this interaction is somewhat ad-hoc and not comprehensive. As such, there would be benefits of having clearer definition and recognition of, and between, the designations. At a county level this could be coordinated through the Local Nature Partnerships. It gets more challenging to coordinate at a regional level and raises the question as to whether there should be a regional grouping of LNPs to address significant issues such as coastal erosion and climate change.

Published on: Dec. 18, 2018