What the government review might mean for national parks' future

A government review of designated landscapes could see a greater emphasis on economic development in these environmentally sensitive areas, say commentators.

National Parks: review under way
National Parks: review under way

Last week, environment secretary Michael Gove announced a review of England’s ten national parks and 34 areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs), to be chaired by the writer and journalist Julian Glover. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), which will lead the cross-departmental review, said it will explore how access to protected landscapes can be improved and their role in growing the rural economy. The review's remit will also include investigating whether there is scope to expand the current network of national parks and AONBs. The department added that "weakening or undermining their existing protections or geographic scope will not be part of the review".

Any changes to national parks and AONBs could have significant implications for rural planning, given the high levels of protection in these designated areas. The National Planning Policy Framework says that "great weight should be given to conserving landscape and scenic beauty" in national parks and AONBs. National park authorities are also planning authorities with the power to determine applications and produce local plans.

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents rural landowners and businesses, has called for the review to consider a greater role for economic activity in national parks’ remit. Many of the CLA’s members experience major problems securing planning permission for change of use of farm buildings within designated areas, according to its head of planning Fenella Collins, limiting the potential for business growth. National parks currently have a duty to foster the economic and social wellbeing of their local communities, but Collins said this duty should be elevated to become one of their statutory purposes.

Planning authorities are also sympathetic to allowing more economic activity in national parks and AONBs. Philip Ridley, Planning Officers Society spokesman on rural planning and head of planning at Suffolk Coastal and Waveney district councils, said such areas should be required to take their economic role more seriously, and environmental protections should not be rigidly adhered to at the expense of growth.

Any strengthening of national parks’ economic remit should focus on enabling existing businesses within their areas to diversify, said Tim Slaney, director of planning for the South Downs National Park. He suggested that "with the additional income" the landowners could "look after the countryside better" because their businesses would be more viable.

In addition to examining national parks’ economic role, the review will look at the scope for extending or creating new designated areas.

According to Emma Marrington, senior rural policy campaigner at lobby group the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), interest in the creation of further national parks comes mainly from areas already designated as AONBs. National Park bids could come from the High Weald, Cotswolds and the Chilterns AONBs, suggested Claire Tester, spokeswoman for the National Association of AONBs and a planning adviser at the High Weald AONB.

While the level of environmental protection in AONBs is similar to that in national parks, Tester said, the latter benefit from a more coherent planning framework and the ability to produce a single local plan for the area. To illustrate her point, she said the High Weald AONB in Kent, Surrey and Sussex crosses 11 local authority boundaries, adding: "The councils have varying commitment to the AONB and interpret some protections differently." However, the designation of further parks could be controversial with local authorities, warned POS’ Ridley: "The loss of democratic control in park areas would be a concern because of the lack of accountability of National Park boards to local communities."

The review’s consideration of improving access to designated areas could have further planning implications. CPRE’s Marrington is concerned that providing greater access to these environmentally sensitive areas could add to their traffic and pollution problems. "There must be a greater emphasis on promoting access that doesn’t rely on the car," she said.

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