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The upcoming protected landscapes consultation is a huge opportunity for nature recovery

David Hampson, Policy Officer at RSPB, writes about what tools and resources designated landscapes need to help deliver the transformative changes required to tackle the nature and climate emergency.

December 2021

England’s protected landscapes – our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) – can help deliver the transformative changes needed to tackle the nature and climate emergency but only if they are given the right tools and resources. At present, wildlife is vanishing from these landscapes, as it is across the country, often despite the best efforts of protected landscape authorities.

Many of the necessary reforms were set out two years ago in the Glover Review and, after a frustrating delay, the Government has committed to consult on draft proposals to implement this by the end of the year.

Opportunities to unlock the potential of protected landscapes for nature do not come around often. These are everyone’s landscapes so we all need to speak up when the consultation is launched to demand the changes that will see these landscapes revitalised – with abundant wildlife and restored habitats that benefit thriving local communities and attract people from all backgrounds. They should be examples of how we can all live well in harmony with nature.

To turn this vision into reality, the Government must:

1. Increase funding for protected landscapes to recover nature, especially for AONBs

The Government must implement Glover’s call for AONB funding to be doubled from the current £6.7m to £13.4m. Their funding, which has always been inadequate, has been cut by 36% over the last 10 years. The average size of an AONB team is now only 4 people. Despite this, their record of delivering for nature is impressive, as is the ambition they have shown in their Colchester Declaration, but they cannot do more without an increase in their funding.

This should not mean a reduction in funding for National Parks, as they also need more resources, including to deliver the ambitions in their Nature Recovery Plan and their individual plans such as Exmoor’s nature recovery vision.

2. Strengthen the nature recovery purpose by making it clear that other purposes should be helping, not damaging, nature

Protected landscapes exist to achieve multiple purposes, including restoring wildlife. Each purpose is important but no purpose should be delivered in a way that is damaging nature. All purposes should be contributing to nature’s recovery, which will benefit not only wildlife but also local communities, visitors and the wider public and economy.

The legislation setting out the current National Park purposes does not achieve this and needs to be amended to clarify that the pursuit of all purposes should be consistent with recovering nature. If AONB purposes are brought into line with National Park purposes, this clarification will also be needed. In practice this means that unsustainable land management that is driving nature loss should have no place in protected landscapes.

In the most important parts of protected landscapes for nature (protected wildlife sites, priority habitats outside those sites and areas identified for habitat creation) and which have the potential to contribute to the forthcoming global target to protect and effectively manage 30% of land for nature by 2030 (30 x 30), the legislation should make it clear that nature recovery is the primary objective.

3. Change the make-up of the boards and committees that lead National Parks and AONBs so that their members are selected for their expertise and passion in the purposes of these landscapes, including nature recovery

To be able to restore nature, National Parks and AONBs need to be led by people with expertise and passion to deliver this. The Glover Review found that National Park boards were “lacking people who emphasise the purposes of securing nature and connecting people with our special places” and that they focus on “procedural and bureaucratic matters such as corporate planning, standards, subcommittee appointments and minutes” and less on nature. The Review concluded that members of the boards leading protected landscapes should be “selected for their passion, skills and experience including biodiversity”.

4. Give public bodies a duty to further the purposes and implement the management plans of National Parks and AONBs, and set out the protected landscape authority’s role in leading and coordinating this

Public bodies operating in protected landscapes need to be pushing in the same direction and raising their game to recover nature. The current legislation only contains a duty on public bodies to “have regard” to National Park and AONB purposes, which is far too weak and has not proved effective in practice. The Glover Review called for this duty to be strengthened to “further” these purposes and to implement protected landscapes’ management plans.

The legislation also needs to recognise the special role for the protected landscape authority to provide leadership for nature in the landscape, bringing partners together, identifying and coordinating the action that is needed and monitoring and reporting on progress.

5. Make sure that there are SMART nature recovery actions and targets for protected landscapes and that progress on achieving them is monitored and reported

The Glover Review recommended that all National Parks and AONBs should have actions and targets for recovering nature against which their performance can be measured. As advised by Natural England, protected landscape management plans should include “an action plan, for example who’s doing what, why and by when”. International guidelines for protected areas contain a similar message: “The importance of establishing clear, measurable, outcome-based objectives as a basis for management cannot be stressed too much”.

Targets should be the contributions each landscape can make towards the Government’s national targets and their setting should be overseen by Natural England. This must include a target for the area of land inside each landscape that will contribute to the 30 x 30 target and an action plan to be led by the protected landscape authority for achieving the long-term protection and effective management of this land, as defined by the International Union for Conservation of Nature here
and here.

Protected landscape authorities should be resourced and supported to monitor and report against these actions and targets.

6. Provide national support, scrutiny and accountability for protected landscapes

National Parks, AONBs and other public bodies operating in these landscapes should be supported to, but also scrutinised and held to account for, delivering on protected landscapes’ purposes, duties, actions and targets. The aim should be to build expertise, share good practice, drive up standards and encourage a race to the top in recovering nature.

Alongside these changes, there are other things the Government needs to get right across England that will be equally important in our protected landscapes – not least the transition to nature positive farming, ending burning on peat and transforming the condition of protected wildlife sites.

All this needs to be brought together and delivered at speed if the Government’s commitment to leave the environment in a better state is to be achieved.

David Hampson is Policy Officer at the RSPB.

Follow @Natures_Voices on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.