Government publish response on future of our National Parks

Posted by Catherine Flitcroft on 17/01/2022
The Cheviot is the highest point in Northumberland National Park. Photo: Shutterstock

Early plans to safeguard England's national parks and AONBs for future generations have now been published by the government. Increased access to nature is among the aims set out in the new plans.

In May 2018, government asked for an independent review into whether the protections for National Parks and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty (AONBs) in England are still fit for purpose. In particular, what might be done better, what changes will help and whether the definitions and systems in place are still valid.

The review’s final report was published on 21 September 2019 and government has now responded, some two years later, focusing on a handful of the original recommendations which they wish to explore in more detail through a public consultation phase.

READ: the full response on the UK Government website

The BMC welcomes the tone of the recent government response but is disappointed that the recommendations around public access and the opportunities for everyone to explore and enjoy our protected landscapes have not been fully realised. We believe that a stronger commitment to level up access to our most treasured landscapes is needed, providing everyone with the opportunity to explore these landscapes and help improve the health and wellbeing of the nation.  

Government response – a new vision for protected landscapes

Since the creation of national parks and protected landscapes was first established in 1949, there has been much change including a climate emergency, biodiversity loss and increasing public health issues such as mental health and obesity.  Government therefore support the recommendation of a new, refined vision for protected landscapes which is:

‘A coherent national network of beautiful, nature-rich spaces that all parts of society can easily access and enjoy. Protected landscapes will support thriving local communities and economies, improve our public health and wellbeing, drive forward nature recovery, and build our resilience to climate change.’

Of particular interest to BMC members are also those recommendations on public access that are being given further consideration.

Improving our public health and wellbeing

Government state that changes are needed to improve access and support local economies in order to achieve our vision for protected landscapes to ‘support thriving local communities and economies, improve our public health and wellbeing’. In particular they wish to:

  • Enhance and expand community engagement and volunteering opportunities for younger and more diverse audiences

Through a new National Landscapes Partnership, collaborative campaigns could be shared along with the collective capacity to plan and promote events, programmes and volunteering opportunities that focus on connecting young people with nature, increasing the ethnic and socio-economic diversity of visitors, and aiding people with disabilities to enjoy our protected landscapes.

  • Develop opportunities to work strategically with the Probation Service’s community payback scheme
  • Support capacity building in schools to engage with nature
  • Enable protected landscapes to deliver for green social prescribing provision.
  • Seek ways to increase the number of rangers engaging with people in protected landscapes.
  • Strengthen the second statutory purpose for National Park Authorities

Clarifying the ambition to connect all parts of society with protected landscapes, clearly referencing public health and wellbeing as an outcome and take a more active role in supporting access than just promoting opportunities.

  • Increase the weight local authorities give to supporting local rural communities and the public’s enjoyment of protected landscapes through their transport plans

Open access land – unclear proposals

Proposal 16 of the 2019 report recommended expanding open access rights to provide additional recreational opportunities. Government has responded by stating that it will review the open access maps to clarify rights and inform any further consideration of expanding open access rights. In parallel, they will also explore the barriers that may exist to the provision of permissive access by landowners and seek to remedy these.

Other access and visitor proposals to be taken forward

  • National Trails should be more joined up with protected landscapes
  • More enforcement powers are required to manage visitor pressures

Government are considering making a greater range of enforcement powers available to National Park Authorities and the Broads Authority to help manage visitor pressures. For example, by issuing Fixed Penalty Notices for byelaw infringements, by making Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) and by issuing Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs).

  • Explore the options available for protecting green lanes while maintaining most public and private access rights
  • Strengthen planning reform in designated areas
  • Integrate access into other schemes

Protected landscapes must also be integrated into the design and development of Local Nature Recovery Strategies and future Environmental Land Management schemes (including improvements to public access)

READ MORE: Campaign for National Parks calls for greater action to protect peatlands

Overall

The BMC are particularly concerned with those proposals that seek to increase powers of National Parks to issue Fixed Penalty notices for byelaw infringements as part of ‘managing visitor pressures’ and are disappointed with the lack of vision for the 2019 recommendation of ‘expanding open access rights to provide additional recreational opportunities’.

The overriding conclusion of the government response is that without structural reform and greater shared ambition and status, our national landscapes will always struggle to do more than make an incremental difference. However, until further details emerge as to the nature of funding, a clear understanding of the mechanisms for improving public access, and whether the resources and capacity needed to make positive changes and better engage the public are forthcoming, we remain cautious.

Alongside proposals to help improve public access, the government response also highlights a number of other areas it is keen to explore.  In particular how National Parks and AONBs will ensure our protected landscapes boost biodiversity; recognise their role in delivering Net Zero, protect us from flooding; store carbon; help communities adapt to the effects of climate change; improve the quality of people’s lives and support rural economies and consideration of new funding models for our protected landscapes.

The BMC will be responding to the public consultation and will be considering the details of the proposals further in the coming weeks.

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