In September 2019, Julian Glover and his panel published their comprehensive review of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) in England. Over two years later the government has at last published its response to that review (15 January 2022). The key themes of the DEFRA response are set out below together with CLA commentary.
There will be a much stronger mission to deliver nature recovery, and to connect people and places by improving and encouraging public access to protected landscapes. The two existing statutory designation criteria will be amended to reflect this. This could help ensure that protected landscapes unlock funding, both from agri-environment schemes and Biodiversity Net Gain, and other private sources. It could also give more purpose to protected landscapes and nature recovery may be a more coherent and attractive mission than landscape designation in some instances. It may also be beneficial for land managers to be able to demonstrate the part they are playing in delivering both nature recovery and opportunities for more inclusive recreation that covers wider society. On the other hand, this approach will lead to more restrictive policies in favour of nature recovery and a tourism monoculture, neither of which will assist in delivering sustainable businesses and good quality jobs, or new homes all of which are critically needed by communities throughout protected landscapes.
The government proposes to introduce a reformed statutory framework to bring the National Park and Area of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) families closer together. A single set of statutory purposes reflecting nature conservation/recovery and opportunities for recreation will be created for both National Parks and AONBs. As part of these reforms, AONBs are likely to rebranded as ‘National Landscapes’. The rebranding exercise will have a cost associated with it – it’s unclear if that will be cost effective. However, the National Landscapes nomenclature may help to reduce the pressure for designation of areas as National Parks. It’s also proposed that AONBs will be provided with statutory consultee powers. In the absence of much detail the CLA remains concerned that this proposal may have the effect of imposing additional constraints for development proposals in AONBs, similar to those that exist in National Parks, including additional bureaucracy and delays.
The CLA is particularly disappointed with the government’s decision to not take forward the proposal to introduce a third statutory purpose for both protected landscapes that would foster the socio-economic well-being of communities and businesses in these places. This is a missed opportunity to level-up the needs of businesses and communities in protected landscapes. Landscape designation brings with it restriction with environmental considerations often overruling economic and social policy and decision-making processes. This places businesses and communities at an unfair disadvantage to those who are outside these artificial boundaries, as they are unable to provide a sustainable flow of funds to sustain and strengthen both their businesses, nature recovery, landscape and communities. The countryside is not a museum and Whitehall should stop treating it as such. The CLA will be challenging this decision.
In terms of the strategic direction for delivering many of the government’s aims, Natural England will be tasked with bringing together and taking forward a National Landscapes partnership. The Landscapes Review had originally suggested that a new public body should be set up but the government is not taking this proposal forward. The CLA will continue its lobbying for Natural England’s remit to be changed so that it has a stronger role to deliver across all three objectives of sustainable development (environmental, economic and social) as it applies to all rural areas, including protected landscapes.
On the planning front, and as part of the government’s forthcoming planning reforms, DEFRA will consider whether the planning policy for protected landscapes set out in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) at paragraph 176 is fit for purpose or whether it requires amending to reflect the strengthened mission for nature recovery and wider recreational opportunities. The CLA’s view is that the current NPPF policy does not require any further amending. On permitted development rights, the Landscapes Review specifically mentioned concerns about the impact on protected landscapes from agricultural buildings and suggested that permitted development rights should be kept under review. The Defra response is measured, and does not propose any changes in the immediate future. We will keep both these matters under review.