PROTECTION AND PROGRESS:
STRIKING THE RIGHT BALANCE IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
by SALLY ORMISTON
On Monday, the Prime Minister joined 65 world leaders at a UN event to commit to reversing nature loss. Mr Johnson pledged that new measures would protect at least 30 per cent of UK land for nature by 2030, up from 26 per cent. This is likely to include the creation of a new National Park or new Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), to award new protection to around 400,000 hectares of countryside.
On the face of it, the announcement about the proposed expansion of protected landscapes in the UK is welcome news for the countryside. Those who own and manage land know better than most that we must conserve and enhance our natural assets for the benefits they provide – habitats, food, access, amenity value and the range of ecosystem services now recognised as having an intrinsic and importantly an economic and social as well as environmental value.
The enhancement of biodiversity cannot simply be achieved by implementing new administrative boundaries and classifications. What must accompany these is cohesive policy, increased funding and a recognition that alongside the undeniable need to reverse decades of nature decline, those who live and work in the countryside must also be enabled to enjoy, operate and develop homes and businesses that can co-exist alongside these goals.
The proposed new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) set to replace existing Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies seeks to introduce a new policy and funding regime with an emphasis on ‘public money for public goods’ – in which the importance and value of nature and biodiversity is strongly recognised. Much work remains to develop the details around design and implementation of these schemes and debates are ongoing around the tensions between helping small farmers – many of whom operate in areas currently protected – to stay in business by rewarding them for ‘basic’ environmental management and food production and those who say these activities do not go far enough to address the stark challenges facing our natural capital.
Designation as a protected landscape does not automatically equate to enhanced natural capital without associated funding and long-term action plans. Public enjoyment of these assets, and a recognition of the role that the countryside plays in our collective mental and physical health also needs to be factored in, as well as ensuring rural areas can provide homes and jobs so that communities can thrive.
Designated landscapes bring stringent planning controls to manage development, and whilst policies do recognise the need for sensitive change to enable the creation of places to live and work, the proposals to expand those protections suggests that development in the countryside will only get harder. Additionally, the recently published ‘Planning for the Future’ white paper is silent on how it intends to address the protection of rural areas whilst promoting their continued vitality and growth. This is something that must be properly considered and addressed to ensure rural communities and businesses are not adversely impacted.
Finding the balance between protecting landscapes to reverse trends in nature loss, support farmers and land managers to transition to new ways of looking after the land whilst still producing food, alongside sensitive development to support communities living and working in the countryside won’t be easy. In order to effect these changes, the appropriate building blocks need to be put in place to protect our landscapes and habitats and allow land managers to be rewarded for managing the land in different ways.
For those looking to develop in the countryside, considering from the outset how development can be achieved in a manner that enhances rather than reduces biodiversity and wider environmental quality is only going to become more critical.