My submission to the government’s review of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty

In recent months we have been discussing the idea of creating a national park in South Shropshire, perhaps extending into Herefordshire to embrace the Mortimer Forest and into Telford and Wrekin to include Ironbridge. There has been a pretty cool reception to this idea from policy makers but a warmer reception from business and members of the public.

I have always emphasised that the government is not at this stage proposing to create new national parks. It is reviewing the way that national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty operate and the scope for extending them or creating new designated areas. The review is led by Julian Glover. This is my written submission to the review – which has now closed.

Q7. What do you think works overall about the present system of National Parks and AONBs in England?

Countryside protection, environmental enhancement and promotion of biodiversity is strengthened by a designation as a protected landscape. This works better in National Parks than AONBs.

Q8. What do you think does not work overall about the system and might be changed?

Beautiful landscapes attract residents with deep pockets and they drive up house prices. This is perhaps exacerbated by National Park status and to a lesser extent by AONB status. The statistics are unclear on this. Just because an area is a National Park doesn’t mean that is the reason why house prices are so high. Other factors are the proximity of a beautiful rural landscape to major conurbations and commuting corridors.

The hike in house prices can make it more difficult for people who work in the landscape, and often work to maintain it, to live within the designated boundaries.

Sustainable transport is difficult at the best of times in rural areas. With increased visitor numbers in National Park traffic has sometimes become a nightmare.

National Parks are planning authorities and protection of the park landscape is central to their planning system. AONBs are no more than consultees to the relevant planning authority. In the case of the Shropshire Hills AONB developments that would never be permitted in most National Parks have been pushed through by Shropshire Council. Twenty of the last 22 major planning applications in the AONB have been approved by planning officers or the South Planning Committee. [I am a member of the South Planning Committee.] The AONB, starved of resources, often cannot make the substantive objections that are needed to challenge an application. For the most part the AONB is treated as a statutory consultee on par with parish councils. By way of example, it is not given the importance accorded to Natural England. I do not believe this problem is restricted to Shropshire. I observed a similar situation in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire with the Chilterns AONB.

Q9. What views do you have about the role National Parks and AONBs play in nature conservation and biodiversity?

A recurring theme is that National Parks are better resourced than AONBs. Here in South Shropshire, the AONB staff work hard but are stretched for resources. There are effective partnerships with landowners and farmers but there are insufficient resources to prevent the large-scale decline that we see in biodiversity nationally invading South Shropshire.

Q10. What views do you have about the role National Parks and AONBs play in shaping landscape and beauty, or protecting cultural heritage?

National Parks and AONBs do not shape the landscape or beauty. They curate existing beauty and enhance it where needed.

The definition of cultural heritage is not given. I take it to include industrial heritage.

Several areas of the Shropshire Hills AONB are as much defined by their past and present industrial landscape as the geological and geomorphological process that created the hills and valleys. An example is the Titterstone Clee, shown in the background of the Ludlow Mural photo submitted with this submission. The ruined buildings, the centuries old workings for minerals and rocks have cut away and distorted the hill. The Clee Hill incline to Ludlow and the Cold War radar domes on the summit as a much a part of the character of the distinctive peak of the Titterstone Clee as its natural formed profile. This example could be repeated many times over in the Shropshire Hills AONB.

In terms of contemporary culture, the Shropshire Hills AONB has been involved in arts projects in past. But my view is that this is not a priority for AONBs or National Parks.

Q11. What views do you have about the role National Parks and AONBs play in working with farmers and land managers and how might this change as the current system of farm payments is reformed?

My response assumes that Brexit and the Agriculture Bill become reality. This bill will align some areas of agriculture with the objectives of AONBs and National Parks. The change in farm payments is likely to lead to a split between farms. Larger farms can be subsidy free because they can deliver economy of scale and will not need subsidy. Small farms, especially hill farms, will boost their biodiversity offer to gain subsidy. But all designated landscapes, including the Shropshire Hills AONB, have some intensively farmed areas. It is not yet clear what impact the Agriculture Bill will have on farms that operate at an industrial scale within designated landscapes.

Q12. What views do you have about the role National Parks and AONBs play in supporting and managing access and recreation?

It is fundamental to both designations that they are not just about conservation. The concept of National Parks was to invite the world to witness the beauty of the landscape. The contemporary challenge for both designations in a period of government budget cuts is to ensure that visitor experience maintained. A major problem in all designated landscapes is the deteriorating state of rights of way. Invisible to car drivers and it seems many policy makers, rights of way are falling into decay as local authorities cut back budgets. There is no better way to understand a landscape than on foot.

Accessibility is also vital. More effort is needed to ensure that those with limited mobility or other constraints can experience as much of the rural landscape as possible.

Q13. What views do you have about the way National Park and AONB authorities affect people who live and work in their areas?

National Park or AONB designation should not regarded as a constraint on lifestyle or business development. There is no difference between a young person in the Shropshire Hills AONB and someone growing up in Telford. Entrepreneurs have the same ambitions in protected landscapes as they do in cities. Protected landscapes can become exciting entrepreneurial hubs with no threat to the landscape.

We are moving into a fully digital age. But National Park and AONB polices often look towards delivering more of same. It often seems to be an ambition of standing still, rather than looking towards a digital boom that does not depend on geographical location.

Q14. What views do you have on the role National Park and AONB authorities play on housing and transport in their areas?

National Parks have a formal housing policy which is part of the development plan. AONBs do not. AONBs are accorded no more weight in housing decisions that town and parish councils.

The Shropshire Hills AONB has raised funds for peak season weekend tourist buses but does not have the resources to support essential day-to-day bus services. Sustainability has to be every day of the week, not just when tourists arrive.

20. What views do you have on whether areas should be given new designations? For instance, the creation of new National Parks or AONBs, or new types of designations for marine areas, urban landscapes or those near built-up areas.

I am convinced that we need more National Parks. Many could be based on existing AONBs.

The question asks whether there should be new types of designation. I doubt that proliferation of designations will move us forward. We need an explicit recognition that industrial and urban landscapes are as much an important part of our visual, educational and enjoyment experience as farmed or geological landscapes.

In South Shropshire we have debated the idea of moving from AONB to National Park status at an area forum, at town and parish councils and in the media. There is no consensus. My view is that we need to promote ourselves more given the relatively isolated area we live in. That is not just about getting in the tourists. It about attracting the clever, high value businesses that want to be somewhere that their key employees want to live. Somewhere away from the rat race.

It is a big ambition but if rural areas are to thrive, they need to market themselves. This doesn’t have to mean overdevelopment. It is about selling the unique attractions of where we live. That has to be good for our local economy.

Q22. Do you think the terms currently used are the right ones? Would you suggest an alternative title for AONBs, for instance and if so what?

The word “natural” is misleading. National Park is a brand name. AONB is not. I would not favour a twiddle with the name. We need a complete rethink of the AONB moniker. It needs to sound like a destination in the same way that National Park sounds like a designation people want to visit.