A new report commissioned by the Welsh Government recommends sweeping changes to the core purpose and governance of National Parks and other protected landscapes in Wales. The Future Landscapes Wales report has raised serious concerns amongst conservation bodies and recreation groups about the very purpose and future protection of these special places.
The aims and purposes of national parks in the UK are laid out by law. The 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, was a law made by parliament that set out what our national parks would be like. Some further changes were made by the 1995 Environment Act, which reaffirmed the protection given to these treasured landscapes.
The core purpose of National Parks in England and Wales are currently very clear and set out in legislation. The Environment Act 1995 revised the original legislation and set out two statutory purposes for national parks in England and Wales:
Conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage
Promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of national parks by the public
When national parks carry out these purposes they also have the duty to:
Seek to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities within the national parks
Following devolution, the management of National Parks in Wales and the legislation that is in place to protect them became fully devolved powers of the National Assembly for Wales and the current Welsh Government. A major review of both the purpose and the governance of the National Parks in Wales was carried out last year by a panel known as the Future Landscapes of Wales (FLW), on behalf of the Welsh Government. The BMC has obtained an early copy of the panel's report and there are very serious concerns about its recommendations that are shared by most other conservation bodies in Wales.
It is extremely worrying that this draft report was to be debated and its recomendations possibly approved at very short notice on March 28th) at the National Assembly, before most AM's and the public had the opportunity to see the content of the report let alone comment on the recommendations. Because of intense lobbying by conservation bodies, including the BMC, this debate was cancelled and is due to be re-scheduled before the summer reccess.
The implication is that Welsh Government wishes to implement the recommendations of this report and fundamentally change the core purpose and values of our National Parks with little public engagement or debate.
There is an intent to legislate to create a new third purpose for National Parks to enable the natural resources of these areas to be managed in ways which create enhanced social wellbeing and economic prosperity for all who live in, use or enjoy these special areas. It is further proposed that these three purposes should also apply to AONBs (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty)
There are however a number of uncertainties which should be addressed in taking this ambition forward. These include the lack of clear recommendations and outcomes.
Missing from the logic of the report is an ultimate safeguard for natural beauty and biodiversity, with a resultant risk that both may either be diluted or eroded. This is one reason why some key conservation organisations in the FLW process are currently unable to support the report as it stands. There is no reference to how the conservation role of a National Park will be upheld where there is an inescapable conflict with its other purposes. The Sandford Principle currently ensures that in such circumstances protection of the National Park’s special qualities is paramount. It is noted that the Marsden report identified a Sandford-plus principle as an essential protective balancing measure to accompany any new additional purpose for National Parks. The Sandford Principle is a fundamental pillar of our National Parks and without it their international standing as National Parks could be questioned. The status of the Silkin Test for major development in nationally important landscapes is similarly unclear under the current FLW proposition.
As currently drafted the report may run the risk of diminishing the international standing of National Parks as Protected Landscapes in Wales, in turn reducing the credibility of the sustainable resource management agenda.
Equally the Future Landscapes report makes no commitment to the role of National Park Authorities as planning authorities. Sustainable management of these special areas requires that these authorities have jurisdictions for both planning and management responsibilities, yet the threat to NPA planning powers in the Planning Wales Act remains extant.
The intent to extend the range or reach of current NPAs beyond their boundaries whilst laudable is not backed by proposals to ensure sufficient public funding to maintain the integrity and qualities of those nationally important areas already designated.
In short – where are natural beauty, biodiversity recovery, and a Sandford-type protective principle in this ‘new contemporary account’?
BMC members in Wales are encouraged to write or e-mail to their Assembly Members to raise concerns about this report as a matter of urgency. BMC members outside of Wales can email or write directly to Lesley Griffiths, Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs Correspondence.Lesley.Griffiths@gov.wales
The full report has now been published and is on the Welsh Government's website