'Now, more than ever, the nation needs its National Parks'

Campaign for National Parks' new Chief Executive Dr Rose O'Neill looks to the future as she takes the helm of the only independent charity dedicated to campaigning to protect and improve National Parks in England and Wales.

It’s October, one of my favourite times of year, when the autumn light showcases National Parks at their best. This is the time that we go on a treasure hunt in the New Forest, the kids shrieking in delight when we find “deadly” fly agaric toadstools hiding on the Forest floor. This year’s trip is extra special as, while we walk, I think about my new job at the helm of Campaign for National Parks.

It’s a privilege that does not sit lightly - this being an absolutely critical time for National Parks and landscapes. But it’s exciting, because there’s a clear role for Campaign for National Parks, which fought so hard at those other critical times, to galvanise once more.

As I write this, I’m half expecting the Westminster Government to be setting out its plans for landscapes any day now, its response to the Glover Review being over two years in the making and it being the focus of a lot of activity during my time at Natural England. We urgently need momentum. We need Ministers to be ambitious and visionary, we need a plan for radical action underpinned by laws and long-term resources to scale up the pockets of good practice. 

I was heartened by the findings and the responses to the Campaign for National Parks recent National Parks and the Climate Emergency report: across the landscape community there’s widespread agreement of the scale of change needed, and there’s great examples of how we might do it. Together, we know what to do, we urgently want to do it, but we need both the Welsh and Westminster Governments to provide the powers and policies to enable it.

It matters because our National Parks and landscapes are so important. They are wonderful and precious and they should be so much more. 

I hope the Westminster Government’s landscape plan envisages National Parks as the founding stone to meeting the target to halt biodiversity loss. Internationally recognised, National Parks must be the places where all our protected sites (like SSSIs) are thriving, where there’s more of them, surrounded by landscape that is managed for people and nature.

These are the places where Governments should especially provide long term support to farmers to collaborate, innovate and invest in regenerative agriculture. Field margins, hedgerows and rivers (with wide buffers), footpaths and bridleways, and verges must be the arteries of the Nature Recovery Network allowing those protected sites to not be lost remnants but to spill out: habitat corridors for people and wildlife across the landscape and into surrounding towns and cities. 

I hope the landscape plan envisages National Parks as centres of innovation: with large-scale peatland and habitat regeneration creating places that are high nature and low carbon; where digital transformation and better public transport enables communities, businesses and visitors to connect with each other and with nature.

But my greatest hope perhaps, is that the plan captures the spirit of its radical 1949 forerunner. Now, more than ever, the nation needs its National Parks. They have been a solace, an escape, a dream that stayed in our minds in the darkest days of the pandemic when we couldn’t visit.

Over the last year, our National Parks have welcomed more people then ever, and have played a crucial part in the health and well-being of millions, including thousands of first-time visitors - young and old, Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and White. National Parks can appeal to everyone; they should be for everyone. I hope that Government provides the infrastructure and resources to level up access to our National Parks, so that National Park Authorities can manage welcoming more people and outreach into urban and under-represented communities. 

This vision is within our grasp - as a landscape community, we know how to do this. We need the political priority to scale up and make it happen. I look forward to working with Governments and authorities in England and in Wales, and with all our Campaign for National Parks Friends and supporters to make it happen.

I would love to hear your vision for National Parks and landscapes. Connect with me on Twitter @RoseONei11 or email me at ChiefExecutive@cnp.org.uk