On the day the Government has issued an underwhelming announcement on England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), RSPB Sites Policy Officer David Hampson explains why the Government needs to start delivering action to help these protected landscapes lead the way in tackling the nature and climate emergency. Please scroll to the bottom of the blog to see our response in a nutshell.

From the windswept Northumberland Coast to the shaded oak woodland of the New Forest, England’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) and National Parks have a vital role to play in tackling the nature and climate emergency and allowing everyone access to nature-rich greenspace.

Successive surveys have shown the strong public demand for improving the state of nature in these protected landscapes. This has been matched by the ambition shown by AONBs and National Parks to play a leading role in recovering England’s wildlife, and the many examples of successful projects on the ground show the appetite of protected landscapes to deliver on this agenda. For example, the North Pennines AONB’s peatland programme, which has been running for 15 years and has already restored an area of peatland three times the size of Newcastle. 

But this is not happening across England at the required pace or scale. Wildlife is continuing to decline, along with the many benefits it provides to us, and access to nature is unequal.  The onus is on the Government to give England’s protected landscapes the resources and the support they need to lead the nation’s response to the nature and climate emergency, and then to hold them account for how those are used.

Image of woodland in New Forest National Park

The key changes the Government needs to make were set out in an independent, expert report carried out for the Government in 2019 (the Glover Review) and expanded on in a joint blog from the National Trust, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and Woodland Trust.

Will the Government do what’s needed and will they act with the boldness and urgency that the nature and climate emergencies demand? So far, the signs are not promising.

The Government has today issued a press release and promised a Ministerial Written Statement, which is its first response to the Glover Review.

It is frustrating that this short statement has taken almost two years to produce. It has taken the Government longer to produce this than it took Julian Glover and his panel to carry out their review, which involved visiting all 44 of England’s protected landscapes and putting together a detailed and considered 168-page report.

It is also disappointing that today’s announcement does not give any details of how or when the Government will implement the Review’s recommendations, except for a commitment to “respond to the review’s recommendations in full later this year”.

So what does the announcement actually say and what is notable by its omission?

The announcement says that new National Parks and AONBs will be designated to “contribute to the government’s commitment of protecting 30% of our land by 2030, and boosting biodiversity”, and highlights that new and extended Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty designations are being considered by Natural England in the Yorkshire Wolds and Cheshire Sandstone Ridge and Surrey Hills and Chilterns respectively. For land to count towards the 30% it needs to be both protected and well-managed for nature as explained here. If protected landscapes are to be able to deliver land that meets that definition, they need to be resourced and set up to do so. As a first step, this requires implementing the key Glover Review recommendations identified by the National Trust, RSPB, The Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust. To be clear, until and unless there are substantive reforms to effectively protect and to properly manage land within protected landscapes for nature, designating more is missing the point. We can only hope that the promised consultation next year will tackle this.

The statement is expected to say that “more funding should be directed towards making space for nature and supporting nature’s recovery”. But it does not commit to providing this. England’s protected landscapes, especially AONBs, are massively under-resourced and they simply do not have the capacity to fulfil their potential to address the nature and climate emergency.

The announcement refers to a new Farming in Protected Landscapes programme. We look forward to seeing the details. This programme needs to support farmers to be financially and environmentally sustainable and prepare them for the shift to payments for public environmental goods, building on successful schemes run for example in the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

The Government’s statement is also expected to say that they are considering how protected landscapes’ structures might be changed so that we can bring the family of protected landscapes closer together, and ensure there is more strategic direction nationally, while retaining their local functions. We agree that there is a clear need for a strong, effective national leadership to drive up standards across protected landscapes, and existing bodies are well placed to provide that if adequately resourced to do so. We are pleased that the statement looks likely to confirm that National Parks and AONBs will retain their local functions as local expertise and partnerships are needed to deliver on the ground action. Changes to structures should also include the make-up of protected landscapes’ boards so that they have the right expertise to deliver for nature, climate and people.

Now, to what is notable by its absence in the announcement. In the run-up to the global climate change conference in Glasgow later this year, we were surprised that there is no mention in the statement of the huge potential of protected landscapes to deliver nature-based solutions to the climate crisis and enable wildlife and people to adapt, despite this being identified in the Glover Review. The President of the conference, Alok Sharma, has identified nature based solutions, adaptation and resilience as key themes for the conference and much of the land in England that can provide this is found inside National Parks and AONBs. Defra’s press release suggests that the new Farming in Protected Landscapes Programme may support farm projects including climate change mitigation and reductions to carbon emissions. This is welcome but falls far short of what is needed to realise the huge potential for large scale habitat restoration to benefit both nature and climate.

The Glover Review also concluded that much more needs to be done to connect all parts of society to these landscapes, especially people from ethnic minorities and younger people who the Review found felt disconnected from them. There is also no mention of this in the statement. Our National Parks and AONBs should be for the whole nation and we would expect the Government to have made that clear in this statement and outlined how this will be achieved.

Sadly, today’s announcement falls far short of what is needed to drive the changes needed for nature, climate and people on the ground in England’s National Parks and AONBs. The Government needs to significantly step up the pace and match warm words with concrete action to deliver the reforms and the support needed to realise the scale of the changes that are needed. We stand ready to do what we can to inform and support this.

Our response to today’s announcement in a nutshell:

What’s good? – more nature in our protected landscapes is wanted by arguably everyone, including government, statutory bodies, AONB’s and NPs, the public and supporting eNGOs.

What’s missing? – in a word, action. Action to see protected landscapes become areas well-managed for nature so they can count toward ‘30 by 30’. Action to provide protected landscapes with the resources and structure they need to deliver nature’s recovery. Action to protect and restore the vital carbon-rich habitats within protected landscapes. And action to make these wonderful places welcoming and accessible to all.

What next? – If our protected landscapes are to contribute to 30 by 30 goals, we need to see much more action from the UK Government, very soon. Without reform and resourcing, designating more landscapes is missing the point.