Bigger and Better – next steps for the Chilterns AONB

Bigger and Better – next steps for the Chilterns AONB

The Chilterns Conservation Board has long been committed to working with our stakeholders to “explore the case for and against the Chilterns having enhanced status or being designated a National Park” and to “review the boundary of the protected area to cover the wider area of the Chilterns landscape that merits it.” These are the first two policies in the Chilterns AONB Management Plan 2019-2024.

In June last year, we were therefore delighted to welcome Natural England’s announcement of its new Designations Programme, part of which would involve exploring both an extension to the Chilterns AONB and ways in which the management and governance arrangements for the AONB could be enhanced.

We had submitted a request to Natural England for an extension to the Chilterns AONB in 2013, and a subsequent request for redesignation as a National Park in 2018. We had also submitted evidence for the independent Landscapes Review (the “Glover Review”) that was published in 2019.

The Glover Review highlighted the particular pressures the Chilterns are under, as well as the value of the landscape to people, given its proximity to major urban areas and its extensive network of footpaths and other public rights of way. It described the Chilterns as an “obvious candidate” for redesignation as a National Park but that, if it remains an AONB, then the Conservation Board should “be given increased resources… and further powers to address the specific challenges it faces.”

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Aston Rowant Nature Reserve

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.

Next steps

Natural England expects to begin work later in 2022, which will start with commissioning consultants to assess currently undesignated areas around the Chilterns AONB for inclusion within the protected landscape. While the Conservation Board is assisting Natural England with its work, the process is led and managed entirely by Natural England, which includes establishing work programmes and engaging with stakeholders. We will publish more details as soon as they are available.

Defra’s consultation on its response to the Landscapes Review closes on 9 April 2022.

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