In January this year, when the Government published its response to the Glover Review, it became clear that the creation of new National Parks in England is off the table for the foreseeable future. AONBs offer much better value for money and, while some of our local authorities support the creation of a Chilterns National Park, carving out a National Park Authority from local council areas is expensive, disruptive and not politically acceptable in some areas.
We see this as an opportunity. Natural England’s commitment to explore both extending the AONB boundary and new ways to manage the Chilterns AONB, demonstrates a recognition of the area’s unique circumstances. It is also a positive way to take forward both the recommendations of the Glover Review and the two key policies of the Chilterns AONB Management Plan mentioned above.
Initiating this work also shows great faith in both the Chilterns Conservation Board and our key stakeholders, including our host local authorities, to co-create a new approach to managing a protected landscape. By that, we mean one that is fit for the 21st century and could prove more effective than having National Park status.
One of the particularly exciting elements of this work with Natural England is that, in addition to benefitting the Chilterns, some or all of the new and enhanced arrangements that are developed, could also potentially benefit other AONBs, leading to a strengthening of the whole AONB network.
Alongside this, if Defra implements the direction it sets in its response to the Landscapes Review – where the ‘sum of the parts’ on offer could be drawn together into an enhanced AONB model – the enhanced status that the Chilterns Conservation Board needs is in sight.
Our current thinking is that the new arrangements will include a partnership approach between the Chilterns Conservation Board, Natural England, our host local authorities and other public, private and voluntary sector organisations working in the Chilterns. This could make the AONB Management Plan, which such bodies already help to develop and sign up to deliver, a more influential tool in coordinating efforts to promote the conservation, enhancement, understanding and enjoyment of the Chilterns landscape, as well as attracting new funding. But we don’t want to be prescriptive about this – it is important that our stakeholders help to create the new approach and have full ownership of it.
In conclusion, through this process, and through responding to the Government’s consultation on its response to the Glover Review, the Chilterns Conservation Board will continue to work constructively with Natural England, Defra and our local stakeholders to achieve more for the Chilterns landscape and its communities through enhanced status, increased resources, strengthened powers and more coherent strategic management of this special landscape. We will also continue to support and inform discussions with the National Association of AONBs and the wider family of AONBs.
National Park status will always be a benchmark against which progress will be measured. However, the best option could well be an enhanced AONB with National Park status remaining an option to fall back on.