South Shropshire could benefit from extra funding under the umbrella of a new National Landscapes Service if recommendations of a report to the government published yesterday are accepted. There will be new national parks but not in Shropshire. My proposal last year to create a Shropshire Hills National Park failed to gain widespread support. A government commissioned review is calling for a new national park in the Chilterns and says that the government should also consider creating national parks in the Cotswolds and Dorset. I would not be surprised if other areas of outstanding natural beauty unilaterally declare themselves to be national parks. They will be following the footsteps of the Broads and London in doing so. Maybe we should do the same in Shropshire.
The 168-page report is the conclusion a yearlong review commissioned by former environment secretary Michael Gove. He’s busy on other matters right now and the task of taking the report’s six recommendations and 27 proposals forward falls to his replacement, Theresa Villiers. The review panel visited all 34 areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), including Shropshire, and all ten national parks. I attended one of the Shropshire meetings led by the chair of the review, Julian Glover, and found him very much in the listening mode.
The media are picking up on the main headlines of the panel’s report. Every child should spend a night under the stars in a national landscape. A national warden scheme should be created, maybe 1,000 strong. But the report has many more fundamental points to make.
Names like Shropshire Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty are cumbersome. They should in future be called National Landscapes. I like that idea. It not only simpler, it removes the word “natural” from the designation. The shape of the landscape of the Shropshire Hills is defined by geological processes but human activities have changed the surface of that landscape. Clearing of trees, planting of trees, mining, channelling water courses, agriculture and building have all shaped the landscape we see within the AONB.
England’s National Parks won’t be changing their names but should be considered national landscapes, along with AONBs, the Broads and, Glover suggests, the National Forest and the National Trails. His idea is to create a “family of national landscapes”. I think there is merit in calling all AONBs and national forests national parks, but each having different levels of management and regulation. This has already happened with the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, which in 2015 renamed itself the Broads National Park without taking on some of the more restrictive regulations associated with those national parks designated by parliament. Just months ago, London designated itself a national park city. It’s the first city to do so and other cities around the world are hoping to follow. The West Midlands conurbation is also hoping to become a self-declared national park. I have no objection to that but it will be galling for the Black Country to become a national park while the Shropshire Hills are merely designated as a national landscape.
I am convinced we will see more self-declarations of national park status. Glover recommends designating the Chilterns AONB as a national park. I know the Chilterns well and agree with that. He is more cautious about the Cotswolds and Dorset AONBs getting upgraded. If they get overlooked by the government, I can see them unilaterally deciding to rename themselves as national parks, while legally retaining AONB status. There is nothing to stop them doing so. After all, if London can become a national park, why not anywhere else?
Budget cuts in the Shropshire Hills AONB have been huge, as they have been across all national parks and AONBs. Glover calls for more funding for AONBs and for them to have a stronger role in planning decisions. That will be very welcome in Shropshire. He also wants AONBs to become governed by a National Landscape Service, which will also oversee the national parks and other national landscapes. That would be a good move. I have never been convinced that Shropshire Council has had the best interests of the Shropshire Hills AONB at heart.
The Glover report, published yesterday, will take some digesting. There will lengthy debates. And the instability of the current government could mean that it is locked away and ignored. There have been six secretaries of state for the environment in the last nine years under five governments. If Michael Gove were to return to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, an unlikely scenario, then we could be more confident that Glover’s recommendations would make significant changes to how national landscapes are run. We will have to wait to see whether other ministers have his same enthusiasm for protecting landscapes.