Right thoughts, right words, right action? - Landscape in the 25 Year Environment Plan

5 February 2018

CPRE's David Walsh looks at what the 25 Year Environment Plan means for designated landscapes and what needs to happen next.

For many of us, it is the stunning landscapes which make the English countryside worth visiting. We develop attachments to places, to particular views, and repeatedly visit ‘our bit’ of the Lake District or ‘our campsite’ on Exmoor (for me that’s the south-western shore of Coniston and a place near Exford). These attachments are shared by people across the country and throughout history; Wordsworth could have been talking about much of the English landscape when he called the Lake District ‘a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.’ It is exactly that sense of public ownership which focuses the work of CPRE.

That is why we believe that the opportunity to access and enjoy the beauty of the countryside is a public good, and why it is something that should be protected, promoted and enhanced at every opportunity. It is why the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act commits the nation to ‘preserving and enhancing natural beauty’ and ‘promoting their enjoyment to the public’. It is why, with the publication of the 25 Year Environment Plan, we are committed to making sure any subsequent legislation ensures the resilience of landscapes in the face of changing agricultural policy and a changing climate.

Breamish Valley, Northumberland National Park

Breamish Valley in Northumberland National Park. Photo credit: Northumberland National Park Authority.

As Campaign for National Parks has noted, we’re still waiting to see exactly what some of the Plan will mean in action – particularly the ‘review for the 21st century’ of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty – although we’re hoping it will guarantee better protection, greater funding and more landscapes protected! CPRE and CNP will be working to make sure the review asks the right questions, and finds the right answers.

However, there are also areas where the 25 Year Plan was disappointingly silent. It offered just one line on ‘managing’ light and noise pollution, and no discussion of measures to improve tranquillity. This is despite the importance of the feelings of relaxation and calm we experience in the countryside – identified during 88% of the 1.35 billion visits to the natural environment in 2015/16. It is qualities such as these which mean 96% of visitors believe all children should experience a National Park first-hand. The ambitions of the Government on this – to increase access to the natural environment through access to care farms, funding for nature friendly schools, and to double the number of school visits to National Parks to 120,000 – are welcome, but could always go further, especially in enhancing the experience of the countryside that people are seeking.

The 25 Year Plan was created at the recommendation of the Natural Capital Committee, which seeks to demonstrate the economic value of the services provided by the natural environment. These are often tangible benefits, such as the money saved on healthcare costs when air is cleaner; the value of the food we produce from the land; flood protection provided by forests and wetlands. However, even the Natural Capital Committee might struggle to account for the value of the experiential qualities provided by our most treasured landscapes. Those features deserve an equal level of protection in legislation and should have had more specific mentions in the Plan itself.

New Forest Ponies in the frost. Photo credit: CNP.

Furthermore, the Plan offers few details of specific measures Government will take to enhance landscapes and guarantee their beauty for future generations. The Plan commits the Government to ensuring designated landscapes ‘continue to be conserved and enhanced, while recognising that they are living landscapes that support rural communities’. It also highlights vague measures to identify ‘opportunities for environmental enhancement in all…159 National Character Areas (NCA)’ while ‘monitoring indicators of our landscape’s character and quality to improve landscapes for people, places and nature’. The Government are right to say this, but the Plan needs to be backed up by legislation.

Michael Gove has an opportunity to put words into action in the Agriculture Bill later this year by placing conservation and enhancement of landscapes as a core objective of agricultural policy, not assuming it as an inevitable consequence of creating wildlife-rich environments. Using the ‘statements of environmental opportunity’ in NCA profiles would offer Defra the opportunity to measure enhancement of all landscapes, not just designated ones. If Mr. Gove is committed to providing public money for public goods, he must accept that the opportunity to access the countryside and experience its beauty is one of the most important goods provided and protected by our farmers, and one most deserving of funding.

The countryside is our national inheritance, and the Government have a profound responsibility to continue to meet the ambitions that were laid down in the National Parks Act almost 70 years ago. The manifesto commitment to ‘leave the environment in a better state than we found it’ puts the right thought at the heart of the Plan. Michael Gove’s foreword to the Plan provides the right words: ‘We value… landscapes and coastlines as goods in themselves’. Now we must continue our work as campaigning organisations to guarantee that the right thoughts and right words are backed up with the right action.


By David Walsh, CPRE.