The government should be helping to transform protected landscapes for the good of nature, climate and people

This is a joint piece by Abi Bunker, Director of Conservation and external affairs at the Woodland Trust; David Hampson, Sites Policy Officer at the RSPB; Ben McCarthy, Head of Nature Conservation and Restoration Ecology at the National Trust; and Jo Smith, CEO at the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust.

In 2019, the Glover Review concluded that England’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) are uniquely placed to drive nature’s recovery, deliver nature-based solutions to the climate crisis and connect people with nature. It also found that these protected landscapes are falling a long way short of their potential. Successive surveys, such the one conducted by the Campaign for National Parks in 2016, have highlighted that the public wants them to play these roles and the review proposed the changes needed.

Almost 18 months later, the government has yet to respond. In the meantime, nature has been offering hope and consolation to millions of us during the pandemic, whilst evidence shows that wildlife is continuing to decline and access to nature is unequal.

Ten important changes needed now
Today we are calling for ten important changes that would have the biggest impact in making sure these landscapes can deliver for nature, climate and people at this crucial time. Our proposal does not include the designation of new National Parks and AONBs, which the government has committed to, as the evidence shows that improving the state of nature in our existing protected landscapes should be the priority. Creating more of them misses the point if we are not protecting and improving what we already have.

The review covered other areas, but here we focus on the priorities for nature, climate and people as there is great urgency and clear scope for protected landscapes to make a difference. If it took these reforms forward now, the government would be showing strong global leadership ahead of the major international biodiversity and climate conferences later this year.

Here are the ten important changes needed now. They are set out in more detail in a letter to the Defra Secretary of State George Eustice.

  1. More priority should be given to nature recovery and connecting people to nature in protected landscapes’ statutory purposes.
  2. Governance should be reformed, so protected landscapes are led by smaller groups of diverse people with the passion and expertise to make decisions for nature, climate and people. This needs legislation but the government could take a first step in the appointments it makes this year.
  3. Stronger duties are needed to deliver on landscapes’ purposes. Instead of just having ‘regard’ to them, relevant authorities should be required to ‘further’ these purposes and support the development and implementation of landscape management plans.
  4. A baseline is needed for the current state of nature in protected landscapes which should be regularly monitored. Evidence gaps should be identified and filled.
  5. SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time based) targets and five year milestones should be used to track how protected landscapes are delivering against the commitments to recovering nature and connecting people to nature in the 25 year environment plan. And landscapes must be held accountable for delivery.
  6. Guidance, training and ongoing support is needed for landscapes’ boards and staff on how to lead the nation’s response to the nature and climate crises.
  7. Protected landscapes should be given sufficient resources to ensure there is the staff capacity and ability to lead ambitious large scale projects. Funding to AONBs should be significantly increased so they can deliver the aims of their Colchester Declaration for Nature Recovery and more funding should be given to National Parks to do much more for nature, climate and people.
  8. Protected landscapes should become exemplars for restoring, expanding and connecting large areas of semi-natural habitat, as part of England’s Nature Recovery Network.
  9. Protected landscapes should be resourced to support the transition to the new Environmental Land Management Schemes by securing dedicated advice to farmers on nature-friendly practices.
  10. Authorities managing protected landscapes need more support to reach out to everyone, especially under-represented groups.

Testing the government’s commitment to its 25 year environment plan
These changes will make a big difference but they will not reverse decades of biodiversity loss in these landscapes. Action from the government is also needed to tackle the main forces driving wildlife declines, including the burning of peatlands, intensive agriculture, water and air pollution, drainage, the illegal killing of protected wildlife, inappropriate forestry cover and the lack of native woodland. It is inexplicable that the government’s recent ban on burning peatlands will still leave large areas of peat in protected landscapes unprotected.

We also cannot hope to see nature recover in protected landscapes without a well-resourced and empowered regulator. Cuts to Natural England’s budget has led its chair to reflect that its work in landscapes “is cut now to pretty much nothing”.

The final, and crucial, change we need to see is more action by those running our protected landscapes. The Glover Review found that nature has not always been high on their list of priorities. The good news is that there are signs of change. For example the North Pennines AONB’s record of delivering peatland restoration, the Broads National Park’s Water, Mills and Marshes Partnership Scheme, Exmoor National Park’s vision for nature recovery and Nidderdale AONB’s State of Nature 2020 report.

The Glover Review was unequivocal about the imperative facing England’s protected landscapes, and very clear about what needs to change. How it responds will be a key test for the government of its commitment to its own 25 year environment plan.