RSPB Policy Officer David Hampson explains why we all need to speak up for nature in a new consultation on the future of England’s National Parks and AONBs

Public demand for nature-rich landscapes

The results of the Peak District National Park’s recent survey show the huge public demand for restoring wildlife to England’s protected landscapes – our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). But wildlife is vanishing from these landscapes, as it is across our countryside.

The Government’s announcement on Saturday was a big test of whether this will happen

After more than two years of delay, the Government is finally consulting on changes to England’s protected landscapes. These landscapes cover a quarter of our country and could become havens for wildlife, benefitting local people and visitors and fighting the nature and climate emergency.

The Government is responding to the Landscapes Review, a landmark report which argued that our protected landscapes need to do much more to recover nature and reach out to diverse communities.

Did the Government pass the test?

The short answer is not yet. But the consultation is a chance for all of us to demand changes that will bring nature back to these places.

A few steps forward

It’s great to see the Minister state that boosting biodiversity, along with improving public access, are the Government’s top priorities for England’s protected landscapes.

The response includes a commitment to give these landscapes a stronger focus on recovering nature and to make other changes to help them do this. This includes setting, monitoring and reporting on targets to recover wildlife and giving public bodies a legal duty to take action to recover nature in these landscapes.

The Government has accepted that protected landscapes do not automatically count towards the upcoming global target to protect and manage 30% of land for nature by 2030 (30x30). This is important. The Government now needs to take urgent action to protect, manage and expand the important wildlife habitats that currently cover around a third of these landscapes. Experts have called for at least 40% of protected landscapes to be covered by well-managed, nature-rich habitats.

Ultimately, as the Government recognise, their actions will be judged by whether landscapes are contributing to national targets, for example to halt wildlife declines and to improve the condition of protected wildlife sites. The Government will be setting out the actions it will take in the upcoming consultation on its Nature Recovery Green Paper. To help the Government, 30 environmental charities have published recommendations for how the 30x30 commitment could be met quickly and affordably.

Must do better

There are five key areas where the Government must go much further. If they do not do this, a golden opportunity to bring nature back will be lost.

Increase funding, especially for AONBs. AONBs are run on a shoestring with on average only 4 members of staff each. The Landscapes Review called for their funding to double. The Government say that its ambition for nature recovery in protected landscapes “must be matched by equivalent resources to ensure effective delivery, particularly in AONB teams”. But it has not pledged any more public funding. This is glaring hole of the Government’s response. These landscapes are national assets and they deserve proper public funding.

Bring forward legislation. Some of the most important changes will need an Act of Parliament. But the Government has not confirmed when an Act will be introduced to Parliament. This must happen by next year.

Give landscapes the right leadership. The Landscapes Review found that the boards that lead our National Parks lack people with expertise on recovering nature and they spend too little time discussing this. The Review recommended that board members should be selected for their expertise on nature, and other priorities, and should be much more representative of our diverse nation. The Government’s response does not do enough to achieve this. Bolder changes will be needed.

Make the focus on nature recovery meaningful. Giving protected landscapes a stronger focus on nature recovery should be more than just adding the word “recover” to their purposes (although we support this). It must also be made clear that land management that is damaging nature should have no place in our National Parks and AONBs.

Give Natural England the powers and resources it needs to oversee landscapes. The report gives Natural England an important role in overseeing protected landscapes, providing external scrutiny that will encourage a race to the top on nature. But it doesn’t say what new powers or resources it will have.

How have AONBs and National Parks responded?

AONBs and National Parks have welcomed the increased priority given to restoring wildlife.

John Watkins, Chief Executive of the National Association of AONBs said: “England’s AONBs strongly welcome the government’s proposal to expand the purposes of the AONB designation to incorporate a responsibility for nature recovery. AONB teams made a commitment to increase the scale and pace of their nature restoration work in the Colchester Declaration and already have a strong track record of delivery, for example restoring peatland habitat twice the area of Birmingham in the past ten years”.

Andrew McCloy, Chair of National Parks England said: “Protected landscapes should be empowered to deliver more for nature, climate and people but need adequate resources and powers to make this happen”. National Parks aspire to contain “an abundance of wildlife”, alongside tackling climate change and being great places to live, work and visit.

What can I do?

These are landscapes for everyone, and we all need to make our voice heard during the consultation. The consultation is open until Saturday 9 April and is here.

We will be saying much more about how you can take part and how these landscapes can be revived for nature and people. Watch this space!

Image: RSPB Haweswater Nature Reserve in the Lake District National Park