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The AONB story

Taken from Outstanding Magazine – Summer 2006

Gower AONB

Gower AONB

For every AONB, this year is the big one – the 50th anniversary of the first area of land (Gower) in Britain to be designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Gower’s Golden Anniversary is being regarded as a good reason to celebrate the start of the AONB Family that now numbers 49 [since this article was written, three AONBs have been de-designated].

No doubt the general whoopee that will be expressed by the events planned to take place this year will reflect the fact that progress towards that figure of 49 has not been easy. From the very outset the introduction and development of AONBs has been dogged by lack of adequate funding, lack of statutory powers, insufficient staffing and an element of political indifference not to say interference. One wonders if John Dower, the man properly credited with the original idea of AONBs (he dubbed his original concept as ‘other amenity areas’) had any idea of what an uphill struggle it was all going to be.

The Second World War came to an end in 1945. In that same year, as if to emphasis the confidence with which the government of the day viewed the post-war future, architect-planner John Dower delivered his Report to Government on National Parks. In it he suggested that although certain areas might not be suitable as National Parks because of their limited size and lack of wildness, their beautiful landscapes still needed protection. He thought they might suitably be designated as ‘other amenity areas’.

“…he suggested that although certain areas might not be suitable as national parks because of their limited size and lack of wildness, their beautiful landscapes still needed protection…”

Two years later, his recommendation for ‘other amenity areas’ was endorsed by Henry Hobhouse’s National Parks Committee in its proposals for 52 ‘conservation areas’; areas of high-quality landscape, scientific interest and recreational value covering just under 26,000 sq km of a wide range of landscapes.

The breakthrough came in 1949. The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 embodied Hobhouse’s ‘conservation areas’ proposals in its provision for the designation of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This meant that the National Parks Commission was empowered to designate any area in England and Wales that was not a National Park, but was of such outstanding natural beauty that the provisions of the Act should apply. This was a gift to areas such as Solway Coast and the Isle of Anglesey, the cliff tops of the latter being brutally marred by non-pedigree herds of caravans. The AONB designation gave the authorities the weapon they needed to save the cliff tops from anything white and boxy.

Just lines on the map

…the countryside management techniques so successfully employed elsewhere were now being applied to an AONB…”

The amenity lobby would probably regard the word ‘breakthrough’ as over the top and with some justification. In many instances AONB boundaries were seen as nothing much more than lines on the map. Even in those AONBs that enjoyed the support of local authorities who exercised special care in controlling development, it was rare indeed for the aims of the AONBs to be given precedence over more pressing needs such as local employment, housing, industrial development and major road developments. The National Parks Commission (NPC) had no powers to manage land in order to promote public enjoyment so, by and large, the AONBs looked better on paper than they did on the ground.

Progress with designations continued, however. In 1965 the NPC began to take a more imaginative line on AONB administration, planning, management and use of special AONB grants then available for landscape enhancement. Joint Advisory Committees (JACS) for the Sussex Downs and the Cotswolds were established in 1966 and by 1968, when the Countryside Commission succeeded the National Parks Commission, 12 AONBs had been confirmed. They covered 7.5 percent of England and Wales including the Solway Coast.

Strong support

In 1973 The Countryside Commission completed its review of AONB proposals. The review showed strong support for new AONBs from both local authorities and the public. The Commission inherited its landscape adviser – one LJ Watson, an energetic AONB stalwart – from the NPC and it was he who recommended that the 32 proposals on the table should be reduced to a programme of 15. The 17 that were ruled out were not rejects – the Glamorgan Coast and Flamborough Head, both Hobhouse areas, had already been chosen as Heritage Coasts while other areas such as the Northern Howgills were identified as potential extensions to existing National Parks.

dedham vale aonb image

Dedham Vale AONB

By this time 32 AONBs, covering 14,460sq km or 9.6 percent of England and Wales had been confirmed, including the Lincolnshire Wolds and the Constable Country of Dedham Vale. Over the next five years progress of AONB designation wound down with only the Isles of Scilly being confirmed. However, there was considerable progress in other areas. Planning and management initiatives had blossomed during this period; in 1974 the Countryside Commission wrote formally to the then new local authorities with AONBs stressing the need for co-ordinated planning and commending the establishment of JACs or similar bodies.

In 1976 a project officer was appointed to the Wye Valley AONB, his job being to work with landowners and farmers, to co-ordinate conservation management and to prepare an AONB management plan. The countryside management techniques so successfully employed elsewhere were now being applied to an AONB, a development that would spread. Soon after that development, in 1978, a major AONB re-appraisal included the first national conference on AONBs, an independent study of AONBs and a nationwide consultation exercise. All this activity led to the Countryside Commission’s first AONB policy statement.

Government fear

So far, so good. Those who nurtured AONBs had grown accustomed to operating in a climate in which the only certainty was uncertainty. But in late 1979 the first serious threat to the concept surfaced as a challenge from the Government in relation to the North Pennines Designation Order submitted at the start of the year. The Government thought that further designations would hold back future economic development by dint of heavy-handed planning restrictions on industrial new build.

Reg Hookway, a forceful and imaginative planner, had joined the Countryside Commission back in 1965 as its Principal Planning Officer. In his 14-year’s tenure at the Commission he had succeeded in persuading it to take a stronger and more imaginative line on AONB administration, planning and management, and use of special AONB grants then available to landscape enhancement. His reaction to the Government’s negativity was typical of the man. He vehemently argued that the only valid reason for not confirming an AONB designation should be its lack of landscape quality. The Government capitulated to the extent that when the major reappraisal of AONBs was completed in 1980 it brought eventual re-affirmation of widespread support for the AONB concept and strong government endorsement of the draft 1980 AONB policy statement.

North Pennines left out

Camel Estuary - North Devon AONB

Camel Estuary – Cornwall AONB Photo: Paul Smith (Wikimedia)

In 1983 the Government confirmed three of the long outstanding Designation Orders, the High Weald and Cranborne Chase and the much smaller Camel Estuary (part of Cornwall AONB). But it wasn’t done with the North Pennines after all. The Countryside Commission was asked to look again at the North Pennines when, in 1984, the Government announced the area was to be the subject of a public enquiry to be held in 1985.

At the enquiry Adrian Phillips, then a director of the Commission, gave a spirited and eloquent defence of the proposed designation aided by Michael Rich QC. He explained in some detail how the designation could stimulate economic development within its boundaries. Again the Government was persuaded. The designation was granted on the condition that the Countryside Commission and the Rural Development Commission should work together to ensure that the economic and social welfare of the population living within the North Pennines AONB should be an inextricable part of its raison d’être. This was a milestone in the history of AONBs; it was the first time that conservation and economic and social activities had been linked. The Order was confirmed in 1988, ten years after the Designation Order was submitted.

The review of the effectiveness and appropriateness of AONB policies undertaken by government in 1989 was not, this time, a matter of life or death for AONBs, rather a review that sought to improve and, where necessary, change AONB policies and their implementation. Again, the Countryside Commission produced an AONB Policy Statement which received the broad endorsement of the Government but very little government money. Additional resources would only be on a pump-priming basis for targetted AONB projects – the security of funding enjoyed by National Parks was not then proposed for AONBs.

The 1990s were a period of considerable activity on the AONB front. There were yet more boundary reviews, steady progress in terms of AONB management and administrative advances and the completion of the Countryside Commission’s programme of AONB designation in England. By 1998 the number of AONBs stood at 41, covering 21,237sq km of England and Wales.

Northern Ireland AONBs

To get to the figure of 49 AONBs one must cross the North Channel to Northern Ireland where currently there are nine designated AONBs (one is to be revoked in May this year and a new designation made) and they embrace about 70 percent of Northern Ireland’s coastline. A further two AONBs have been proposed, but no designation yet made. A study of the conditions under which Northern Ireland’s AONBs function explains why their supporters look towards England and Wales with some envy.

binevenagh summit image

Binevenagh Summit – Binevenagh AONB – One of Northern Ireland AONBs

Photo: NIEA

And so to the 50th anniversary of Gower AONB. Celebrations will surely acknowledge the importance of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW). If AONBs are allowed to take full advantage of the promises given them in CRoW over the next decade or so there will be better coordination between all the AONBs. For those with eyes to see, there will be a noticeable improvement in landscape quality as well as the recreational value of AONBs, while their communities will flourish. Wind farms will not proliferate; power lines will go underground. Being in an AONB will be an advantage to farmers whose management of the landscape through their normal activities will be essential and fully reflected in the way Government applies agricultural policies and financial support.

Jump to:
Further information about AONBs
AONB designation
AONB legal framework
AONB family objectives


Martin Caton, MP for Gower and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for AONBs has high hopes for the peninsula’s future.

When the Gower peninsula received its designation as the first AONB in Britain on 9 May 1956, this simply provided recognition of the quality of its landscape, wildlife and historical identity. Unlike with National Parks, however, designation did not bring with it provisions to ensure protection of the area.

It is remarkable, therefore, that this comparatively small, separate and special place resisted exploitation and neglect as effectively as it did over the next 44 years without proactive management and ear-marked resources.

The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) has moved AONBs into a new and much more satisfactory ballpark, where there is a requirement to manage for conservation and where finance has followed this requirement. I am sure that Gower, like every other AONB in the country, will continue to benefit from the impact of this legislation.

However, our finest countryside needs more than legislation to protect and improve it. In Gower and every other AONB we need involvement, a sense of ownership and pride of the people who live in and around it; promotion of the special qualities and vulnerabilities of these exceptional places to visitors; an emphasis on sustainability and the development of a partnership between the people who make their livelihood in the AONB and those whose job it is to protect it.

We are better placed to achieve these objectives now than in the past, not just as a result of CRoW but because the AONBs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are networking better than ever before through the National Association and trilaterally. That means better and faster dissemination of best practice. That’s got to be news worth celebrating.


Action plan for AONBs

Professor Adrian Phillips spells out three lines of action that would help guarantee the future of AONBs.

As we celebrate 50 years of the history of AONBs, it is a good time to look forward as well as back. Many of the threats that these special landscapes will face in future are already apparent. There are the big issues – the uncertainty that hangs over future levels of support for land management, increasing development pressures, the all-pervading impacts of globalisation and, of course, climate change. There will also be many more subtle threats to the details of the landscape, such as ‘horsiculture’ and creeping sub-urbanisation. As to the human communities that live in our AONBs, for how much longer can we talk of a rural way of life as being a distinctive set of interests, values and experiences which sets country people apart from their urban cousins?

So how might our AONB family be designed to withstand some of these dangers and be encouraged to adapt to change without losing its distinctive qualities? Three things would help:

  • New legislation in the next five to ten years, designed to strengthen safeguards against threats to all protected landscapes; bring some order into an increasingly complex pattern of landscape designations and administrative models in each part of the
    UK, and strengthen the funding base of AONBs in particular.
  • Strong support for AONBs from Natural England. Along with the Countryside Council for Wales, the new agency should make clear that these areas are to be given special attention as places where the underlying principles of sustainable development can be applied and demonstrated.
  • Imaginative incorporation of the aims of the European Landscape Convention (ELC – recently signed by the UK) into the policy and practice of the UK. The ELC aims to promote the place of landscape protection, management and planning in all aspects of public policy, such as agriculture, energy, marine and housing. It can, therefore, help achieve the objectives of AONBs.

Though some AONBs have suffered grievously since 1956, by and large they have been a success story. Much has been achieved against the odds and with minimal resources. In recent years an ‘AONB movement’ has begun to emerge which embodies the hopes and aspirations of these special places. The challenge it faces in the next 50 years is formidable. But by working together, those charged with responsibility to manage our heritage landscapes can create a better chance of achieving many more years of success.