The Glover Review, published in September 2019, is the first official appraisal in their 70 year history of the way England runs its 10 National Parks and 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. From a startling loss of biodiversity to a shameful lack of diversity among visitors, all is not rosy in our National Landscapes; so how might they be made more relevant to life in the 21st Century? Paul Besley examines the Review and its recommendations.
There is a place not far from where I write these words where I can escape the noise and haste of my city. A wild landscape of moorland and gritstone, ancient settlement and nature. Adders warm themselves on sunlit rock, curlew can have sanctuary, and red deer will commune. The red listed ring ouzel will breed nestled into gritstone cracks, protected by the climbing community and a band of monitors who brave all weathers. It is a landscape to spend time in and try, as best I can, to be in balance with.
There is another place, again not far from my desk where you can see grouse and purple heather, and perhaps a green plastic track stretching across a Site of Special Scientific Interest leaching man-made particles into a water course and down into peat. At certain times of the year my city will be engulfed in acrid smoke as gamekeepers burn the land to encourage the growth of new heather. On my walks I may see the occasional hare but less so in the past few years, perhaps the odd golden plover, or a common lizard. What I will rarely see is a peregrine falcon or hen harrier, or any other bird of prey, for on the driven grouse shooting moors these are not welcome. According to a spokesman from the national park where they should thrive, 'criminality and illegal disturbance' have affected 'the peregrine falcon'. Foxes are also an unwanted visitor, enticed to stink pits piled high with those beautiful hares and circled with a ring of snares, these evocative creatures of nature suffer a long and painful death.
National landscapes will have to square a circle of increasing human activity whilst maintaining a natural environment where wildlife can thrive. It is a tough call
Both of these places, the good and the bad, exist in Britain's oldest national park, a place where nature and wildlife are supposed to be conserved and enhanced. Now, seventy years after the 1949 Act that brought about the Peak District National Park, England's special places have been reviewed as part of the 'The 25 Year Environment Plan' commissioned by the Secretary of State.
The Landscapes Review, as it is called, of England's 10 National Parks and 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB's) was published in September of 2019 and was the first significant appraisal of our chosen landscapes since the introduction of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 within which the 10 National Parks were tasked:
- to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area;
- to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the parks' special qualities by the public
and the 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty were tasked;
- to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the designated landscape.
The guiding maxim that underpins all is the Sandford Principle:
'Where irreconcilable conflicts exist between conservation and public enjoyment, then conservation interest should take priority'.
The review, conducted by a panel headed by Julian Glover, Associate Editor of the London Evening Standard, delivered five objectives, with 27 proposals that would meet the country's needs in the 21st century. Proposals include renaming both as National Landscapes; the establishment of Nature Recovery Networks reaching the wider community; connecting people with nature and environment; building affordable homes; expanding national landscapes to new areas; and supporting National Landscapes with new laws, more funding and more security.
Leading the review Julian Glover stated that, 'We need our finest landscapes to be places of natural beauty which look up and outwards to the nation they serve. In essence, we've asked not 'what do national landscapes need?', but 'what does the nation need from them today?'.
Landscapes Alive for Nature and Beauty
The most significant proposal is that National Parks and AONBs should be brought under one body, a new National Landscapes Service, (from now on take National Landscapes to mean the existing two bodies), along with a new National Ranger Service. AONBs would be given statutory consultee status. These landscapes would form the backbone of Nature Recovery Networks that stretch out across England. Almost as an aside the review states there is 'not enough data to say for certain, whether the state of nature in National Landscapes is better, or no better, or even worse than it is elsewhere'. After 70 years we seem to know so little about England's nature. The review has an aspiration, an aspiration mind, to 'restore diminished biodiversity to levels taken for granted in 1949'.
The lack of legal powers to command change means that national parks are fighting for nature with hands tied
National landscapes along with the additions will have to square a circle of increasing human activity whilst maintaining a natural environment where wildlife can thrive. It is a tough call. As National Parks England said in its submission 'National Park Authorities (NPAs) have few powers (beyond planning) to manage or influence relevant decision making'.
The Landscapes Review makes a telling point about Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) SSSIs are 'the finest sites for wildlife and natural features in England, supporting many characteristic, rare and endangered species, habitats and natural features.' The review states that of all England's SSSIs just over 61% are in an unfavourable - declining or unfavourable – recovering condition. However, in National Landscapes where over 50% of SSSI's are situated this rises to 75% and in the Peak District, Exmoor and North York Moors National Parks, this rises to 83.9%, 84.7%, and 88.5% respectively. How can this be so in landscapes that are managed to 'conserve and enhance'?
Language and how you use it matters. North York Moors National Park have taken exception to this statistic with a spokesman saying that 'We regret to see the figures used in this way. Latest studies by Natural England show that 99% of the land covered by SSSI's designation within the North York Moors National Park is in a favourable or recovering condition.'.
He points out that 'According to Natural England's definition of 'unfavourable recovering' this is often referred to as simply 'recovering'. And, 'With this in mind, the statistic included within the Landscape Review puts all these 'unfavourable' qualifications together. Even if these statistics were up to date, further scrutiny of the Raising the Bar study shows that 87.8% of the North York Moors National Park is recovering. 0.3% is unfavourable no change and 0.4% unfavourable declining. Therefore, it is misleading to refer to all of this as being unfavourable and is unrepresentative of the condition of SSSIs'.
The North York Moors National Park response to the call for evidence highlighted how difficult it can be to implement change, stating that 'a lack of powers to ensure positive change happens means that, even if, say, after twenty years of the most extensive consultation it was agreed by all parties bar one that a certain activity should take place to save a critical species, the National Park Authority has, in general, no power to make the activity happen'.
In the Peak District National Park, the Bird of Prey initiative between the National Park Authority, National Trust, Natural England, the Moorland Association, and wildlife bodies was so ineffective that the RSPB threw up their hands in frustration and withdrew. There has been improvement but there is a long way to go before success. The lack of legal powers to command change means that national parks are fighting for nature with hands tied.
The review suggests extending powers, 'a requirement should be established in law on relevant bodies to support the development and implementation of national landscapes'.
It is not all contentious figures within the review; it does highlight the hugely successful ongoing work of Moors for the Future and the Peatland Programme of the North Pennines AONB and others to re-wet peat blanket bog. This is important work for the immediate landscape habitat, and nationally, helping to lock in carbon, decrease the risk of lowland flooding, and increase biodiversity.
Perhaps the most telling submission to the review was from the National Trust who said, 'We believe that National Parks and AONBs are not currently delivering on their duty in relation to nature'.
The review highlights meetings during a period of three months at each national park. Across thirty agendas 'nature' appeared only once. In the same period 'planning' was an agenda item 36 times and 'governance' 108 times. One board spends an entire day each month discussing anything but the important issues the review highlights. Remember the statutory purpose of National Parks is to 'conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage'. Perhaps with very little legal power to make an effect on nature, planning applications are really all they have power to influence. Is this good enough?
Landscapes for Everyone
There is a feeling I often detect, sometimes justified but often not, that national parks want to remain locked in some 1950s utopia where the sun always shone and ginger beer was plentiful. It is a view that is predominantly from a white, middle aged section of society. The review highlights diversity and community engagement as major problems - and it is right to. The ONS states that in Britain today 14% of the population come from a non-white ethnic group. The make-up of National Park and AONB boards is overwhelmingly white, middle aged and male. The review calls for this to change. It also mentions the three-year Mosaic project that was launched to engage with black and minority ethnic groups in selected cities. With a very few notable exceptions, one being the PDNP, who won an award for their work, the legacy of the project seems to have been squandered.
The review highlights diversity and community engagement as major problems - and it is right to
Perhaps the issue is how the predominantly white, middle aged groups view others? Visit the Peak District visitor centre at Fairholmes on any summer weekend and you will find large groups of family and friends from all sections of society enjoying the outdoors in a way that is not yomping across Kinder Scout, sodden to the skin and believing that this is how it should be. Do we need to be so prescriptive about how people enjoy our landscapes?
The review also looks at how young people experience the countryside, particularly those from lower income groups and those who simply do not engage. It states that 'part of the issue appears to be that little is known about what those who don't visit our national landscapes need or want'. A case study prepared in 2009 by Suckall, Fraser, Cooper, & Quinn, looked at visitor perceptions of rural places, and found that perhaps not everyone shares the same view of nature. The study looked at two schools in Sheffield. Pupils from an affluent area were engaged and appreciative of the moors and the opportunities afforded for leisure and enjoyment, they 'actively sought out peace, tranquillity and solitude'. The second group, from a less affluent area, found the Peak District less inviting and would prefer a day in a local shopping mall. They 'wanted something else from a moorland experience', commenting 'that's good if you are into all that but I like it noisy'. Turn that study on its head and ask what is wrong with people who do not like shopping, and noise and other such stimuli and perhaps we can begin to think the unthinkable. Not everyone is enamoured with the countryside so should we be trying to force them to enjoy it?
Living in Landscapes
One of the saddest developments in the landscape is the silent empty village. Holiday cottages and second homes have had a major impact on the availability of housing for local people, particularly the young. Combine the purchase of housing stock by outsiders, with restrictions on new reasonably scaled and priced housing developments and there will be an exodus of people looking for somewhere to live. When Richards and Satsaangi conducted a study of affordable housing in the Peak District they found that the availability of social housing, at 11%, falls well below the national average of 23%. According to a spokesperson for the PDNP, vacant properties, holiday lets and second homes account for almost 11% of housing stock, well above the national average of 4.4%, but well below the average in National Parks.
In the Yorkshire Dales National Park, where 22% of houses are second homes and holiday lets, an average of 60 houses were built each year between 2001-2011. In the same period an average of 90 houses were lost annually to second homes or holiday lets. With an ageing population, 26% of residents are over 65, ways need to be found of providing healthy communities that are sustainable and attractive for young families. Proposals are now being discussed that would increase the council tax on non-main domicile residences. By 2024 the YDNP want to build hundreds of new houses, increase jobs by 10%, retain schools and make the community a place for young families to live and prosper. Therefore, the proposal for a new National Landscapes Rural Housing Association to build affordable homes for rent is to be welcomed. But those houses need to be protected from being sold on into the private market.
Transport is also a major issue. We are a very car dependent nation, and never more so than when accessing the countryside. Local transport services have been decimated in the last few decades. Whilst holiday time initiatives do help, these fall by the wayside outside those periods due to lack of use and funding. This leaves communities isolated and hotspots overrun. A clear transport policy for accessing and living needs to be developed, one that is run as a social contribution rather than for profit, and that pays attention to the effect of emissions on the environment. There is little advantage to the environment in having popular cycle trails when people emit carbon when driving there to use them.
More Special Places
The review proposes an addition of several new National Parks and AONBs as a way of relieving pressure on existing ones. It proposes that the Chilterns, Cotswolds and Dorset receive National Park status along with Sherwood Forest as a designated National Forest. The review also identifies several areas that may qualify as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, with the Forest of Dean being the most likely candidate. Areas such as the South Pennines are seen as being able to connect disparate landscapes such as the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales.
New Ways of Working
The 10 national parks receive a funding budget of almost £49M. As the review rightly points out, the Arts Council distributes £576M with just 14 members, whereas the national parks require 220 people. The review found that the boards were 'lacking in people who emphasise the purposes of securing nature and connecting people with our special places'.
And there perhaps lies the nub of all that is wrong with our protected places today. Remember that 70 years after National Parks were first established in England, the review can only state as an aspiration for the future to 'restore diminished biodiversity to levels taken for granted in 1949'.
One welcome proposal of the Review is that every child should spend one night in a national landscape under the stars. How we educate our children about nature can have a hugely beneficial impact on its ability to recover from its current precipitous decline.
For many years I have believed that as a society we view landscape as an amenity; something from which we can extract whatever we need to fulfil our desires. Remember that quote from the review, 'In essence, we've asked not 'what do national landscapes need?', but 'what does the nation need from them today?' I believe this anthropocentric approach is fundamentally wrong. It frames everything we do with landscape and nature, how we view it, how we experience it, and how we treat it. For example, to resolve the degradation of the landscape by thousands of boots we pave the line of the footpath with stone. We alter, add, remove, or reposition the landscape to suit our needs. What we rarely do is stop access altogether. But we can. Remember the self-policing climbers and ring ouzels of Stanage Edge.
The vocabulary we choose to use is significant. There is a lot of talk of 'user groups', 'opportunities', 'weaknesses', 'recreation', and 'experiences.' This is a language centred upon human needs, where nature takes a back seat. The State of Nature for England 2019 reported the decline in wildlife populations since 1970, with some on the threshold of extinction. When I mentioned this to people, they responded that 'in national parks it would be acceptable if it was no worse than the decline across the country'. About the growth of holiday homes, they said 'if there were not holiday homes how would people be able to enjoy these beautiful areas.'
Perhaps if the review had chosen to ask, 'what do national landscapes need?' we could gain a new ecocentric perspective. I believe that our approach to and understanding of this question will have the greatest impact on our future relationship with nature.
One welcome proposal of the review is that every child should spend one night in a national landscape under the stars. Now more than ever we need to fundamentally change how we engage with the natural environment. Nature and the environment have for too long been the very poor sibling in our state education system. How we educate our children about nature can have a hugely beneficial impact on its ability to recover from its current precipitous decline.
A possible model to look at would be the one used in Norway called 'Friluftsliv'. This is a programme that promotes the knowledge and understanding of nature and thereby seeks to develop a deeper relationship with the natural world within a cultural context. This aligns with the Landscapes Review's desire to promote places for health and well-being.
Hans Gelter of Lulea University of Technology, Sweden, studied this approach and found that;
'Pursuing such a genuine friluftsliv provides a biological, social, aesthetic, spiritual and philosophical experience of closeness to a place, the landscape, and the more-than-human world, an experience most urban people today are disconnected from. This deep experience is a biological phenomenon with its roots in human evolution.'
From the beginning of the industrial revolution in England each generation has inherited a poorer landscape and more harmful practices. We must educate in such a way that we have the necessary knowledge and skills to live within the boundaries of nature. If we fail in this one task our children will pay an unimaginable price.