At the end of March a large number of people contacted their Assembly members at short notice, concerned that they be represented in a debate on ‘The Review of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ scheduled by Welsh Government. The debate was postponed after Assembly Members questioned why they had not had sight of the relevant report of the WG ‘Future Landscapes Wales’ (FLW) programme.
Concerns over ‘Future Landscapes Wales’
Whilst events were unfolding it became clear that a number of conservation bodies have serious concerns about the FLW process and the way the report has been drafted. The Snowdonia Society is part of the Alliance for National Parks Cymru, which circulated this Alliance response to Future Landscapes Wales report final. The story was widely covered on radio and television – see BBC Wales news item (watch from 18 minutes 20 sec, while available) including interviews with Dr Ruth Williams and the Snowdonia Society Director. See also BBC article ‘National Parks need clear direction.’
It is no surprise that Assembly Members take this seriously. National Parks are a much-loved institution, the product of the same spirit as the National Health Service, established in 1948. National Parks are part of that determined push to plan for the long-term and build a healthier world with opportunities for all – in many respects they are our ‘outdoor NHS’.
National Parks are driven by a deceptively simple idea: when something is of great value to present and future generations it has to be protected robustly and consistently. National Parks have been reviewed a number of times and have withstood the test, their purposes little changed since they were established under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.
National Parks delivering for Wales
The power to legislate is not a reason to legislate, a point we would make to the chair of the Future Landscapes Wales group. Following appointment as FLW chair Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas wrote “This is the first time ever that we are able to define our own landscape for ourselves, so we don’t have to fit into the England and Wales model of National Parks and AONBs.” We would like to see any evidence that the National Park model does not work for Wales. Perhaps Lord Elis-Thomas’ point is more political than practical, but we should all be wary of projecting our assumptions onto others. Many people are attached to the iconic landscapes directly through their own experiences and are attached to the National Park model simply because it has delivered protection for the landscapes they love. In such a world-view the political and historical origins of the National Park system are irrelevant – what matters is that they do what it says on the tin.
Designated landscapes to become “regional development bodies”?
The current draft of the ‘Future Landscapes’ report contains a mixture of ideas without resolving them into a coherent account. It places much emphasis on the need to innovate, but rather less on the value of what already exists. Of real concern are sentences such as: “...the designated landscapes and associated bodies should retain their identity and legal status while evolving into regional development bodies...”. We must hope that this is not the essence of the Future Landscapes Wales proposition – that National Parks and AONBs should become ‘regional development bodies‘.
Conservation principle missing
Of greatest concern are the omissions from the FLW report. Future Landscapes Wales was meant to build on the work of the Marsden Report on the Review of Designated Landscapes in Wales. Professor Marsden and his panel consulted widely, assembled evidence and produced a detailed report of 250 pages and nearly 70 specific recommendations. Marsden concluded, amongst a wide range of proposals, that further integration of socio-economic objectives is possible in the National Park and AONB purposes, but that such change must be governed by an overarching conservation principle, like the Sandford Principle in effect currently, to ensure that the special qualities of these special places are ultimately protected.
The Sandford Principle
The Sandford Principle states that where irreconcilable conflicts exist between conservation and the other purposes and duties of the National Park, then conservation interest should take priority. The Future Landscapes Wales draft report makes no mention whatever of a protection mechanism or Sandford-type principle for natural beauty, landscape, and wildlife. Some organisations involved in the FLW process have been unable to support the report because conservation is so conspicuously lacking from its vision.
Welsh Government has created the capacity under the Planning (Wales) Act 2015 to remove planning powers from National Park Authorities. If Welsh Government were to activate that clause and were to press ahead with new purposes without a Sandford-type principle, it would signify the end of National Parks as we know them in Wales. Welsh Government will need to ensure it consults widely and acts wisely if it is to avoid:
- a ‘race to the bottom’ to open up National Parks and AONBs to unfettered development
- breaking up of the family of National Parks which generations have enjoyed across our nations
- the relegation of National Parks in Wales to a lower division of Protected Landscapes internationally
Snowdonia Society will repeat its offer to contribute directly to planning a proper future for protected landscapes in Wales, a future in which their value to all of us is recognised by the strength of their protection and the quality of their management.
(Image courtesy of Alan Carter)