RSPB England director Emma Marsh reviews the recent appointments to the boards that run England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

 Image: Golden eagle, one of many species that have become extinct in the Lake District. This stunning raptor became extinct in the Lakes in 2015 as we reported here.

This week Westminster Government missed a golden opportunity in its appointments to the boards that run England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The Government has failed to address the severe shortage of nature champions on many of these boards and appears to have made little progress on making them more representative of our diverse nation. Almost a year after a landmark report set out how these protected landscapes can save nature, fight climate change and improve the nation’s health, it is now time for the Government to act. 

Research has shown huge public support for putting nature at the heart of the nation’s recovery from Coronavirus. England’s National Parks and AONBs have the potential to lead the way but the Glover Report, commissioned by Westminster Government last year, found that they are falling short. Inside these landscapes, wildlife is fast disappearing, and damaged habitats are unable to provide us with countless benefits – from storing carbon to reducing flood risk. At the same time, young people and those from lower socio-economic groups and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities feel disconnected from these landscapes and are being denied the huge benefits of experiencing nature.

Our National Parks and AONBs are meant to serve the whole nation and one of their key statutory roles is to “conserve and enhance wildlife”. So why are they falling short?

The Glover Report found that the boards running England’s National Parks (called ‘National Park Authorities’) lack “people who emphasise the purposes of securing nature and connecting people with our special places”. In other words, there are sadly very few people who champion nature and access to it.

The result is that wildlife is rarely on the agenda when these boards meet. Instead, Glover found that meetings are spent discussing planning applications and administrative matters (corporate planning, standards, subcommittee appointments, minutes etc). Incredibly, Glover discovered that nature was only on the agenda at 3% of National Park Authority meetings.

The people running our National Parks are also far from representative of society. The Glover Report found that their average age is 64, there are almost 2.5 males to every female and only 0.8% are from BAME communities. The report found that the boards running AONBs suffer many of the same traits, including a lack of diversity.

Glover rightly concluded that this must change. The report recommended that board members must be selected for their passion, skills and experience in biodiversity (and other key areas) and that every effort should be made to achieve diversity.

Every year, the Government has a chance to address this. It makes appointments to the boards running England’s National Parks and to two AONBs (the Cotswolds and Chilterns). It could use its appointments to bring in much-needed nature champions and to boost diversity.

So how has the Government done this year? We have reviewed the list of this week’s appointees to see how many have demonstrable passion, skills and experience in nature conservation. This wasn’t easy as only one National Park has published information about their new board members.

Following on from the welcome news a few weeks ago that nature-friendly farmer Neil Heseltine will become the new Chair of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, we were pleased to see that a small number of like-minded farmers are on this week’s list of new appointees. However, the overall picture is much less encouraging.

From what we can tell, there is a big divide between the National Parks that are performing the best for nature and those that are performing the worst. People with an interest and expertise in nature conservation have been appointed in the Broads and South Downs, where just over half of protected wildlife sites (called ‘Sites of Special Scientific Interest’) are in good condition. The story is very different in the National Parks where wildlife is in the most trouble and where nature champions are most needed, for example in the Peak District, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales where less than a third of wildlife sites are in good condition. The people appointed to these National Parks do not have any obvious track record in restoring nature.

It also appears that very few, if any, appointees are from BAME communities and women are still in the minority. This is hugely disappointing at a time when our landscapes should be reaching out to the whole nation.

These appointments raise serious questions about the recruitment process – for example, how much effort was put in to encouraging applications from diverse communities and from people with backgrounds that would help the landscapes achieve their role to “conserve and enhance wildlife”?

It is widely acknowledged that England’s National Parks and AONBs need to do much more for nature, climate and people. The Glover Report shows us at least some of the things that need to change but we are all still waiting for the Government’s response to the report and for a plan of how it will implement the recommendations.

On 21 September it will be exactly one year since the report was published. The lack of a response and these new appointments are out of step with the Government’s bold commitments to restore nature, fight climate change and connect people from all parts of society with the environment. It is imperative that the Government’s response to the Glover Report and plan for action are published without further delay.