England’s celebrated landscapes are world renowned as the idyllic, cultural face of our nation. They have the power to relieve stress, improve mental health and have inspired the likes of William Wordsworth, Jane Austen and J. R. R. Tolkien. Therefore, perhaps it is unsurprising that the majority of adults (59%) say the British countryside and scenery are what make them most proud of Britain.
Despite its value, threats to our treasured landscape are steadily rising due to increasing development pressures and diminishing diversity in the farming sector. Yet the repatriation of our agricultural and environmental policy gives us a unique opportunity to change this, and the 25 Year Environment Plan is an opportunity to set us on a path towards an enhanced and more resilient countryside.
To make the most of this opportunity, alongside Campaign to Protect Rural England's (CPRE) work with Wildlife and Countryside Link on the 25 Year Plan, we got together with colleagues at the Campaign for National Parks and the National Trust to talk about how the Plan can specifically enhance England’s landscapes. We all agreed that everyone should be able to experience improvements in the character, beauty and distinctive qualities of our landscapes. These improvements should increase their resilience in the face of challenges to come, in particular climate change.
But what practical steps could deliver these landscape improvements?
1. Overhaul Agricultural investment. Working with 70% of all land in England, agricultural professionals are the stewards of our countryside. However, the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) basic payment scheme, which pays farmers on the basis of land ownership, has reduced the diversity of farm type and size. Meanwhile, the reliance on market mechanisms has left many farmers to choose between economic viability and environmental protection.
Now, for the first time in decades, we have the opportunity to fix this backwards subsidy system. Agricultural funding can be used to encourage and reward farmers for enhancing the British landscape and providing important environmental and social benefits that the market does not support. With our Link partners, we have put forward our proposals for what this should look like.
82% of the public think that, post-Brexit, farmers should be supported by the Government to safeguard the countryside (NFU, 2017). As Michael Gove stated, the funding farmers currently receive can “only be argued for against other competing public goods if the environmental benefits of that spending are clear”. Taxes should be used to provide public benefits rather than compromise our environment.
2. Utilize Natural Character Areas. From dry stone walls in the Yorkshire Dales to the dykes and ditches of the Fens, the UK's distinctive landscape encapsulates our rich culture and history. Natural England’s National Character Area profiles provide a wealth of information and analysis, including identifying the “environmental opportunities” in each individual character area. Funding and policy could now be directed towards delivering these opportunities.
3. Improve access to green areas. We all agree on the need to improve access to landscapes. Remarkably, 12% of children did not visit any natural environment over the space of a whole year (2013-2015). The most cost-effective way of improving access is to focus improvements on the countryside surrounding urban areas, which can benefit the most people. Considering the health benefits associated with visits to green spaces, access should be facilitated and encouraged.
4. Support National Parks and AONBs. Whatever the weather, nothing can beat a visit to some of England's beautiful National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). In fact, they receive 260 million visits every year. In National Parks alone, visitors spend more than £4 billion per year and support 68,000 jobs. However, some of these areas are under considerable pressure from large-scale development. Campaigners are currently fighting to protect the Surrey Hills from oil drilling, the Northumberland coast from open coal mining and the Kent Downs from a major housing development. The protection that AONBs rightly hold in national policy is not always upheld in practice. There should be continued funding support for these areas and their protected status must not be brushed aside.
5. Implement the Law Commission’s recommendations on Conservation Covenants. Conservation Covenants (a voluntary agreement between a landowner and an environmental body for conservation purposes) should be encouraged. They can empower individual landowners and prevent valuable conservation work being undone if land changes hands.
In developing the Plan, the Government must remember that quantitative measures cannot capture the value of our landscapes in full. Their contribution to wellbeing, connectedness and education add far more value that cannot be easily counted. The 25 Year Environment Plan must ensure our incredible landscapes continue to be treasured and protected.
Campaigns and Policy Assistant, CPRE
Find CPRE on Twitter @CPRE
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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