A set back for National Parks in Westminster – but we keep on fighting

  • Contributor information: CNP

Speaking to a full room in Westminster yesterday morning, Environment Minister Trudy Harrison asked the public to hold this Government to account to deliver their promises for nature. Just hours later, a major promise for National Parks was in tatters.  

Last night, the House of Lords debated a critical change to the law in the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill to give more powers to National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Beauty. As Liberal Democrat Peer Baroness Parminter said in the debate “it is frankly inconceivable” that the UK could meet its international nature obligations without these reforms. They included making nature and climate recovery a clear priority, strengthening management plans and adding a duty on all public bodies to take far greater action for National Parks and AONBs.

Why is this change in law needed? Baroness Willis of Summertown (cross bench) explained “because our national parks are in a perilous state for biodiversity. They might seem very lush and green but, a bit like in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the sound in those national parks is getting quieter and quieter. We are now at a point where many of our rare and vulnerable species do better outside national parks than in the protected areas inside national parks.”  Our recent analysis shows that only a quarter of nature sites (Sites of Special Scientific Interest ) in National Parks in England are in ‘favourable condition’, compared to a national average of 38%.

Before the debate, I attempted to explain the changes to my 10 year old son – who was amazed National Parks didn’t already have all these protections. It seemed obvious to him that nature and climate recovery should be a priority in National Parks – and that there should be laws to protect that. It’s also obvious to many others – including, not so long ago, the Government too. As Baroness Jones of Whitchurch (Labour) pointed out “There is widespread support for this approach from the National Parks themselves and from the environmental NGOs. We also heard in Committee that a number of eminent scientists and advisers also support this approach. This Bill was identified by the Government some time ago as the best vehicle for making these changes, so it has been a huge source of frustration that the issues have not been progressed in it. It is now four years since the Landscapes Review report and 18 months since the Government’s response.”

Parliament needs to listen to the public

So what’s changed since the Government first promised these legal changes? The Secretary of State and the Prime Minister. Certainly not the public pressure and love for National Parks. New Wildlife & Countryside Link research published yesterday shows the public is unimpressed with the Government’s performance on the environment. Only 1 in 10 think the Government is performing well on key environmental issues, with Brits wanting greater environmental ambition from politicians. The vast majority of the British public (78%), of all political persuasions, supported stronger protections and increased funding for National Parks.

There was push back from some Conservative peers including unwarranted concern that such an amendment would undermine rural livelihoods – it’s not clear to me how requiring water companies, councils, public transport authorities, energy companies and others to invest more in National Parks could do anything more than result in positive economic change in these areas.

The next step in our campaign

Despite all our efforts, the Government rejected the proposed changes. I am incredibly disappointed but want to thank all the parliamentarians who have tried so hard make this law a reality. I have two glimmers of hope:

First, Defra Minister Lord Benyon spoke of his determination for National Parks and AONBs to deliver for nature, committed to new guidance and did not close down the debate about new duty on public bodies. The amendment was withdrawn, no doubt to keep this window of opportunity open. There were also many Conservatives in the debate who supported a stronger duty on public bodies. Let’s hope the Government can deliver on that at least.

Second, Labour front bencher Baroness Hayman gave her party’s full support, echoing Alex Sobel MP (shadow Environment Minister) who spoke at our National Park Protector Awards last week about their wish to implement these and other recommendations of the brilliant independent Glover review if they form the next Government.

Looking ahead, we at Campaign for National Parks will be battling on, campaigning to strengthen the laws that protect our awe-inspiring National Parks, so that nature can thrive in these places for generations to come.

The more voices that speak up about this, the more powerful our message becomes. So if you care passionately about protecting nature and tackling climate change in our National Parks – sign up to our campaign.

Together we can save #NationalParks4Nature.