This post is by David Hampson, policy officer at RSPB and Ruth Bradshaw, policy and research manager at Campaign for National Parks.
As the saying goes, to tackle the nature and climate emergency, we need to ‘go big or go home’. Only bold action now can restore our lost and depleted wildlife and natural processes across large swathes of our countryside. And, as nature recovers it will replenish its ability to provide us with a liveable planet, with nature-rich green spaces to restore ourselves.
We need look no further than our 44 protected landscapes – our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) – as the focus of transformative action at scale in England. They cover a quarter of the country, from Northumberland to the Isles of Scilly, but account for a much greater proportion of the places that are important habitats for wildlife and for storing carbon. This is why the government’s long awaited response to the Landscapes Review and the consultation that will run until 9 April, matter so much.
The government should be going further and faster
The government response is a step forward and contains some changes that will make a difference. It is planning to give National Parks and AONBs a stronger focus on nature recovery and to require greater action by public bodies to achieve this. By January 2023, new ambitious outcomes will be agreed for how protected landscapes can play their part in meeting national climate and nature targets. Natural England is charged with monitoring and reporting annually on progress, and advising on where more action is needed.
To make sure this really is transformative for nature, the government should set a suite of ambitious national biodiversity targets under the new Environment Act, including on species abundance and extinction risk, and the extent and condition of habitats. This must include – as called for by Sir John Lawton – a specific target for the condition of protected wildlife sites.
But there are many areas where the government should be going even further and faster to match the scale of these emergencies and to meet its own national goals. These include:
- Legislation to achieve important changes, for example to the purposes of protected landscapes and duties on public bodies, must be introduced to parliament by next year at the latest to avoid momentum and time being lost.
- More public funding is needed so that protected landscapes can meet the increased ambition to drive nature recovery. This is particularly important for chronically underfunded AONB teams, but National Park Authorities also need more support to deliver their new responsibilities effectively.
- The government should give Natural England a clear remit, specific new powers and resources for its oversight of protected landscapes. Natural England should also have sufficient independence to act as a champion for protected landscapes across government.
- While it is good to see plans to improve the performance and training of National Park Authority board members, more work is needed to ensure those leading protected landscapes have the necessary expertise across their remit, including in nature recovery, and that they are more representative of our diverse country.
The next test is the Nature Recovery Green Paper
A big test for the government will be what comes in the consultation on its Nature Recovery Green Paper. This is going to set out how the government intends to achieve its commitment to protect and effectively manage 30 per cent of England’s land and seas for nature by 2030 (‘30 x 30’).
It will say what needs to happen, alongside the reforms outlined in the Landscapes Review response, for National Parks and AONBs to help meet that target. Thirty environmental charities (including us) have published recommendations for how the 30 x 30 commitment could be met quickly and affordably.
The government rightly accepts these landscapes cannot count towards 30 x 30 in their entirety. But large parts of them could contribute if they were given increased protection, the right management and monitoring were put in place and targets for nature’s recovery were set and delivered against.
Experts have called for at least 40 per cent of protected landscapes to be covered by well managed, nature-rich habitats. Changes proposed by the government in response to the Landscapes Review will increase the capacity of National Park Authorities and AONB teams to help meet 30 x 30 and the target to halt the decline of species. But they have to be implemented now, because the clock is ticking to 2030.
Delivering on its commitments to 30 x 30 and taking forward the Landscape Review proposals will require joined up action across government, and will need to be reflected in changes to the planning system to strengthen safeguards for protected sites, protected landscapes and priority habitats, and to ensure that we make the space for nature’s recovery.
The level of government ambition and urgency taken forward from the Landscapes Review and Green Paper consultations could make or break hopes of halting and reversing decades of wildlife loss. Now is the time for big thinking and, most importantly, rapid action. We should all be adding our voices to the protected landscapes consultation to make sure that happens.