21 October 2019 by Alison Hallas
The final report of the government’s independent review of protected landscapes, led by journalist Julian Glover, landed at the end of September to wide acclaim. It’s full of ambition for how our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (collectively called the ‘National Landscapes’ in the report) can meet our needs in the 21st century. Policy and advocacy officer, Alison Hallas, explores what it means for walkers.
‘Reignite the fire of the national parks movement’
You’d be hard pressed to find a walker who doesn’t like wandering through the spectacular scenery of the National Landscapes… if they know about them. As Glover observes, visitors to these fantastic spaces do not reflect our population - too often they can feel like the preserve of a comfortably off and not very ethnically diverse section of society. These beautiful places are protected for the nation and their benefits should be accessed and enjoyed by everyone, whatever their background, age or location.
The report recognises that the staff and volunteers who help to manage these landscapes have done fantastic work with minimal resources – but that so much more could be done with the right support. Glover doesn’t shy away from concluding that this means more money. Evidence suggests that this would be a sound investment, with benefits that span the health of our population, the natural world and local economies. Glover proposes investment in a central National Park Service, and a 1000-strong team of rangers to welcome people into the landscapes and enable them to thrive.
Of course, investment doesn’t only come in the form of public money. Community and voluntary organisations – including Ramblers’ volunteers - make a huge contribution to the operation of our national landscapes and supporting more people to enjoy them. There are welcome references to this vital role in the report and the often innovative, impactful work developed, led and delivered by the voluntary sector. But, these initiatives too often operate in isolation and against a backdrop of insecure funding. We should be ambitious about the role that the voluntary sector – including the Ramblers – can play in protecting and enhancing these iconic landscapes. After all, when Glover calls for us to ‘reignite the fire of the national parks movement’, he is speaking directly to the Ramblers’ legacy. Organisations like ours have a critical – and enhanced – role to play in the future of these landscapes too.
Connecting people to nature
One of Glover’s proposals in particular caught the attention of the national press: every school child should be able to spend ‘a night under the stars’ in a National Park. It’s a neat, attention-grabbing idea designed to connect future generations to nature in childhood and throughout their lives. It’s an ambition echoed by the government’s own 25-year environment plan. The new Environment Bill is a timely opportunity to translate that ambition into firm action - that’s why we’re calling for the Bill to introduce legally-binding targets that hold government to account for connecting people to nature and public access.
Our national landscapes should be exemplars for public access, alongside nature recovery and landscape management. Glover recommends that government “consider expanding open access rights in national landscapes” (subject to a “a much more in-depth investigation”). Although the review talks predominantly about open access for different user groups, our national landscapes should be at the forefront of all forms of public access management, including enhanced open access on foot. For example, open access in places which are not currently included in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, such as woodlands and watersides.
A network of green spaces
Of course, national landscapes are not the only way to connect people to nature. They should be viewed (and managed) as one part of our national network of green routes and spaces, including National Trails and public rights of way. The review touches on this only lightly: exploring this further (with partners like the Ramblers) should be a priority next step.
Glover recommends that National Park Authorities take over the maintenance of rights of way within their boundaries. On the face of it, this seems a sensible proposal given their wider remit to promote understanding and enjoyment but there would be details to iron out – such as responsibilities around enforcement. Funding for this work also presents a challenge. The review suggests that “funding… should move from local government”. But, there is no ring-fenced funding for rights of way and we know that some local authorities are barely surviving financially, with significant impacts on many rights of way teams.
We shouldn’t forget the critical role that the rest of the public rights of way network plays – or could play - in connecting people to nature. The report rightly concludes that better, sustainable public transport is critical, but so too is our network of paths. If national landscapes are going to be truly accessible to all, people should be able to walk from their doorsteps (or at the very least a train station or well-served bus stop) to explore them.
There are many more recommendations to welcome in the Glover review report – 27 in all. These wide-ranging recommendations span integrated environmental and landscape management, nature recovery, planning protections, governance, sharing of expertise, strengthening of the purposes and resourcing of the AONBs (and changing their name). As an independent review, it makes no promises for government action. So far, the response from the new Secretary of State for the Environment, Theresa Villiers, has been positive. But, these are unusual political times and we’ll need to keep the pressure up to make sure that this important review does not sit on the shelf. What we need now is the funding and action to back it up.
Find out more about the 70th anniversary of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.