We all know how important our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) (also called ‘designated landscapes’) are for nature and people in Wales. They provide vital homes for wildlife; improve our health and wellbeing; boost the economy by drawing millions of tourists to Wales every year; are of huge historical, cultural and geological significance; and play a huge part in caring for the environment that sustains us.

RSPB South Stack

However, a recent report has left us feeling very anxious for the future of these special places and the nature they protect. Welsh Government commissioned the ‘Future Landscapes: Delivering for Wales’ report to lay out a plan for how our National Parks and AONBs should be managed in the future. RSPB Cymru participated in a working group that helped to develop the report, but since its release on 9 May 2017, we have been left feeling very concerned that the report doesn’t fully represent the views of the whole working group because it does not put forward what we think would be best for nature.

This is the story of what the report says, why it’s important, and why we feel it is not representative of RSPB Cymru’s contribution.

What it is

In 2014 the then Minister for Natural Resources, Carl Sargeant, commissioned a review of our National Parks and AONBs in Wales – lead by Prof Terry Marsden. After the Marsden review was published in 2015, Lesley Griffiths, the current Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, set up a ‘Future Landscapes Wales Programme’ working group to explore the review’s recommendations and to make sure they worked with Wales’ new laws – the Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016. This working group was made up of different groups and interests that would be affected by the report, including environmental bodies like RSPB Cymru. Our role was to speak up for nature and work with other organisations to make sure the report was the best it could be. We were really excited, because we knew that if this report was to set the future of our National Parks and AONBs on the right track, it could have real benefits for people and nature in Wales.

What it says and why we’re concerned

The report makes some great recommendations in line with Wales’ new laws, like taking more action to combat biodiversity decline and doing more to build resilient ecosystems. It also has lots of very sensible proposals about enabling the bodies that manage designated landscapes to work together in partnership with others to improve benefits across and outside their boundaries. We’re also happy that the report acknowledges how Brexit brings with it an opportunity to manage our land more sustainably by replacing the EU Common Agricultural Policy with a policy that’s good for Wales. An integrated sustainable land management scheme like this would have building nature’s resilience at its heart, bringing long-lasting benefits to wildlife and people.

However, we are disappointed that the report underplays the important role National Parks and AONBs have in leading on action for nature’s recovery. We think that the designated landscapes are well placed to be at the forefront of partnerships with land owners, farmers, experts and local people – proactive partnerships that can restore the wildlife and habitats that are a key part of what makes these landscapes special in the first place.

We’re also concerned that the report makes no mention of a key recommendation from the original 2015 ‘Review of Designated Landscapes’ (the Marsden Review), which argued we should keep and extend the “Sandford Principle” to all designated landscapes. The Sandford Principle says that if there is a conflict between protecting the environment and people understanding and enjoying the environment (that can't be resolved by management), then protecting the environment is more important. In other words, the original recommendation was to keep and extend the areas where we put nature first. We recall that there was strong support from all members of the working group to include this principle in the report, especially as it would fit perfectly with Wales’ ambitious new laws.

However, our gravest concern is that the report explicitly recommends the need to create new laws that will re-purpose National Parks and AONBs, and even worse, it presents this as the view of the working group. This is absolutely not RSPB Cymru’s view and we believe it was not the view of the working group either. The group did not identify the current legal objectives of designated landscapes as a key barrier to sustainably managing our natural resources, but rather the group proposed that the focus should be on using the frameworks set out by the Environment Act and Well-being of Future Generations Act. We do not recall the group discussing the Welsh Government’s new proposal to legislate on the purposes (i.e. the objectives) of national parks and AONBs in any detail at all. This means that we feel the published report does not accurately represent our views. Prior to publication, we made representations to Welsh Government officials on this matter and asked them to amend the report in this regard. We are unhappy therefore that the Welsh Government’s view that there is a need for new legislation is still being represented as endorsed by the group.

RSPB Conwy, Eleanor Bentall rspb-images

Why it’s important

We all want to see Wales flourish – bursting with wildlife, covered in lush native woodland, wild flower meadows bursting with colour and moors and mountains dotted with walkers on misty mornings. To do this, we must make sure the plan for our National Parks and AONBs really is the best it can be for both nature and the wellbeing of future generations.

A quarter of Wales is made up of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This means these areas have a huge role to play in protecting nature, but they also have a huge role to play in providing essential services to the public, like clean drinking water, clean air, carbon storage, healthy soils, renewable energy, the production of healthy food, and spaces to enjoy and which also improve our mental and physical health, to name a few. Without properly protecting these landscapes, we cannot protect a significant proportion of Welsh nature, and that means we cannot protect the vital benefits that nature provides for society.

It’s not all bad – it can be better

We are very supportive of the Welsh Government’s commitment to working in partnership with stakeholders like RSPB Cymru; we know that by working together we can make the most meaningful changes with the greatest impact for nature and people. However, we do not think that this stakeholder process has lived up to the Cabinet Secretary’s original ambitions in her introduction to the report.

We call upon the Cabinet Secretary to conduct a review of how this project was undertaken, so we can learn from this experience. This will allow us to move forward and rebuild trust and confidence and develop a new and improved mutual commitment to working together for a better future. We are calling on the Welsh Government to explicitly support the Sandford Principle and extend it to all the designated landscapes in Wales. We also ask Welsh Government not to make new legislation for designated landscapes at this time, and instead support the efforts of the working group members to deliver sustainable management of natural resources in these designated areas. The Government must also support them to develop a real understanding of what blocks or enables us to manage Wales’ natural resources sustainably.