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“A goal without a plan is just a wish”*: How updated Management Plans for protected landscapes can drive nature recovery

Ruth Bradshaw from Campaign for National Parks, Ben McCarthy from National Trust, Meriel Harrison from the RSPB, Katherine Hawkins from the Wildlife Trusts, and Emma Clarke from Wildlife and Countryside Link write together to send a clear message to the UK Government, Natural England and the protected landscape bodies about what Management Plans for National Parks and AONBs need to contain if they are to drive nature’s recovery.

June 2023

National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) have an essential role to play in recovering nature. These nationally important landscapes have huge potential for restoring our depleted wildlife, and widespread support to do just that from both the public and the communities who live and work within them.

Achieving this potential will require a clarity of purpose and level of coordination that has been missing to date. The role of the Management Plan for each protected landscape will be crucial, and new guidance is urgently needed to ensure that these Plans are fit for the purpose of driving transformative action to recover nature.

Delivering on promises and targets

When in 2022 the Westminster Government published its long-awaited response to the Glover Review of protected landscapes, one of the commitments made was a review of Natural England’s guidance on Management Plans. This is long overdue, as the most recent guidance dates from 2005 and can only be found on the National Archives website.

In line with global goals and targets agreed at COP15 in December 2022, the Westminster Government has committed to protect 30% of England’s land and sea for nature by 2030 – the ‘30x30’ target. In responding to the Glover Review the Government acknowledged that National Parks and AONBs in their current form cannot be counted in full towards the 30%, and also that achieving 30x30 will rely on improving the protection and management of these landscapes so that they deliver much more for nature and climate. A wider package of significant reform, including legislative change, is needed to unlock their potential – and within that package, a vital component will be Management Plans that are fit for the future.

The role of Management Plans

Management Plans are the primary strategic document guiding the priorities for each National Park and AONB, and their importance is reflected in legislation. The Environment Act 1995 set out duties on National Park Authorities (NPAs) to adopt and regularly review National Park Management Plans, while The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 created a statutory duty on AONB local authorities to publish AONB Management Plans. In developing and delivering Management Plans, National Parks and AONBs have the ability to lead, convene and drive action for nature at a landscape scale, bringing together all the key stakeholders.

In England, Proposal 3 of the Glover Review called for strengthened Management Plans that set clear priorities and actions for nature recovery, with their implementation backed up by stronger status in law. The Government’s response recognised the need for strengthened plans, saying that future Management Plans must include targets and actions that align with national goals.

The Management Plan reviews tend to run on a five year cycle, and with many AONB Plans expiring in 2024 there is a window of opportunity to ensure that new Plans deliver for nature and join up with new Local Nature Recovery Strategies. It is an important time right now to identify what these Plans need to contain if we are to meet the statutory targets being set for species and habitats, and achieve the 30x30 target.

A checklist for nature’s recovery

Our organisations have come together at this crucial time to send a clear message to the UK Government, Natural England and the protected landscape bodies about what these Plans need to contain if they are to drive nature’s recovery.

This is our checklist of the essential elements that every Management Plan should include, and which we want to see reflected in new Management Plan guidance being produced by Natural England this year:

  1. A long-term vision for a landscape that has been transformed for nature and the benefits it provides to people, consistent with relevant Government policy statements or visions.
  2. Ambitious and SMART targets for restoring, conserving and enhancing the priority features of the landscape. The Westminster Government is due to set overall targets for National Parks and AONBs in England, and individual targets in Plans should follow.
  3. Actions clarifying what needs to happen to achieve each of the targets, which in most cases will require significant changes to how land is being managed.
  4. Priorities for the protection and recovery of nature including key species and ecosystems and priority habitats, explaining where they are and why they are important.
  5. The current state of those priorities, drawing on all available reliable evidence including site condition, habitat mapping and species and water quality data.
  6. The pressures that are affecting or could affect those priorities, setting out site-specific pressures as well as they key pressures affecting nature in that National Park / AONB.
  7. An outline of the likely impacts of climate change on the priority features, based on the scenario recommended by the Climate Change Committee of a 2-degree warmer world.
  8. A list of the key stakeholders and partnerships, with the NPA or AONB team clearly setting out its own role in convening and leading partnerships.
  9. A review of the successes and failures from the previous Management Plan. The lessons should be identified and addressed in the new Plan.
  10. How progress on achieving targets and actions will be monitored
    and transparently and accessibly reported on annually.
  11. A wide and diverse range of groups and individuals should have been involved in developing the Management Plan in an inclusive and collaborative way.

This checklist focuses on what National Park and AONB Management Plans should include for them to drive nature’s recovery. Management Plans should include many other components, for example equal opportunities for connecting people with nature, tackling climate change and conserving heritage and the wider landscape. Many of these other aspects will themselves be important for recovering nature: we know, for example, that increasing nature connection increases pro-environmental behaviour. To be fit for the future, all elements need to be compatible with protecting and restoring nature, creating a ‘green thread’ of nature recovery running through the whole of each and every Management Plan.

* ‘The Little Prince’, Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Ruth Bradshaw is Policy and Research Manager at the Campaign for National Parks. Ben McCarthy is Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology at the National Trust. Meriel Harrison is Senior Policy Officer at the RSPB. Katherine Hawkins is Living Landscapes Manager at the Wildlife Trusts. Emma Clarke is Policy Officer at Wildlife and Countryside Link.  

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