Living here in South Shropshire most of us know what an AONB is. Or at least I hope we do. But that’s not true elsewhere, even when the name is spelt out in full as “area of outstanding natural beauty”. And in my experience, not that many people know how an AONB stands operates or protects the landscape, even when the name is spelt out.
But almost everyone knows what a national park is. Almost everyone knows they are the nation’s most cherished landscapes.
The government is suggesting that it might create more national parks. So why don’t we grab the opportunity? I think it could be time to designate much of south Shropshire as a national park.
The current opportunity comes from a review of national parks and AONBs announced by Defra secretary Michael Gove last month.[i] One of its aims is to look at the case for extending existing national parks and creating new ones.
A year ago, I wrote that Gove would “swing a wrecking ball through environmental regulation.” But months later, I found myself praising his surprising conversion to the green cause. The jury is still out on some of his plans, including those for an environmental regulator and farming post-Brexit. But his commitment to trying to reduce and reverse the damage done to biodiversity and our environment over recent decades looks genuine.
That’s why I believe the review Gove launched two weeks ago review is not a cynical attempt to undermine protected landscapes. A lot will depend on the leader of the review, That’s Julian Glover, now a journalist on George Osborne’s Evening Standard. (Glover wrote the excellent Man of Iron, the excellent biography of Shropshire’s Thomas Telford.) The composition of the advisory panel appointed to work alongside Glover will also be critical to its success.
While we wait for details of the panel membership and information on how the review will operate, we should examine the case for south Shropshire becoming a national park. There are a lot of arguments in favour – and many against.
Much of the landscape in south Shropshire has been protected for sixty years by the Shropshire Hills AONB. It’s a great concept. It is also low profile. I only know of one road sign announcing it, on the road from Pontesbury to Bishop’s Castle. There are signs on the platform of Church Stretton rail station. But that is about it. Most people pass through without knowing it’s a designated landscape. That makes it less noticeable as a destination than it might be if it was a national park.
I can’t find accurate or up to date figures for how many people visit the Shropshire Hills AONB every year. I certainly wouldn’t like a Shropshire Hills National Park to be like the Lake District or Snowdonia. There you sometimes must queue to walk up a hill. In too many areas, you can never be alone. But we could still accommodate more visitors in South Shropshire while maintaining the tranquility that defines our AONB.
More visitors will bring more money. Rather rough estimates suggest that more than 80 million tourists visit the fifteen UK national parks every year.[ii] They spend close to £5 billion. There are no up to date or accurate figures for how much is spent in our AONB. But I am sure we could increase the spend from tourists in South Shropshire by becoming a national park.
The experience of the current national parks is that money is not just spent within the parks’ borders. Businesses for miles around benefit from increased trade. New businesses are created to serve the visitor economy.
One of the downsides of being an AONB is that the management team is starved of resources. For example, the Shropshire Hills AONB doesn’t have the staffing to comment on most planning applications within its borders. In contrast, the bodies that oversee national parks are planning authorities in their own right. Some say this reduces democratic oversight. However, most of the members will be local unitary councillors. They would be joined by parish councillors, who are at present very much in the backseat on planning decisions. The planning committee will also have a closer focus on protecting the special qualities of the national park than a unitary can manage.
National parks are not just for gawping at. They are working landscapes, places where people are born, live and die. But the kudos of living in a national park puts 22% on house prices, lifting them even further out of reach of local people. The retired and wealthy displace those that were born in the landscape and those that work to preserve it. That’s the biggest downside.
The national park authority could however take a stronger line on affordable housing than Shropshire Council, which has low demands for affordable housing from developers. That said, affordable housing is in my mind the biggest challenge to be faced in designating our fields, woods and homes as part of a national park.
We would not be the first AONB to upgrade to national park status. The South Downs AONB did that in 2010. Everything I read suggests that has been a good move. A Buckinghamshire MP is also currently lobbying for the Chilterns AONB to become a national park.
If we create a national park, should Ludlow be within it? I don’t see why not. The largest town in the Shropshire Hills AONB is Church Stretton, which has a population of around 3,000. The largest town in the South Downs National Park is Petersfield with a population of more than 13,000. We should include the Mortimer Forest and Ironbridge within the park boundary too.
I think there are more upsides to becoming a national park than downsides. Not everyone will welcome the extra traffic or our quiet landscape becoming better known. But it will a boon to the economy of South Shropshire. It will give greater protection for our precious landscape and environment. And we would have a stronger voice for South Shropshire to match those of Shewsbury and Oswestry that dominate decision making in Shirehall.
As often on this blog, I am flying a kite here. But where better to fly a kite in a national park?
[i]. Michael Gove launched a review of national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty in England at the end of May. He said: “Amid a growing population, changes in technology, and a decline in certain habitats, the time is right for us to look afresh at these landscapes. We want to make sure they are not only conserved but enhanced for the next generation.” The review will be led by Evening Standard journalist Julian Glover and supported by an advisory panel. Among the purposes of the review will be to examine “the case for extension or creation of new designated areas.” The review will report in 2019, in time for the 70th Anniversary of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.