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In the afternoon on day one of the conference the audience posed questions to the panel. What follows is a report of the questions and answers during the discussion.
Chris Ridley Stuart, Vice Chair NAAONB, asked Andy Davey, the Deputy Head, Landscape and Out Recreation Programme at DEFRA that, “knowing how the department are behind protected landscapes, how successful do they think they have been getting this across to other branches of government?”
Andy responded by saying that the Natural Environment White Paper gave a good account of the role protected landscapes had to play in the protection of the natural environment and that landscape scale approach is powerful testimony to impact AONBs have had in the departments thinking and the way they have been able to convince colleagues across Whitehall that this is the way forward for natural environment.
However, the representative stated that there was room for improvement from DEFRA’s perspective in some of the more cross cutting government agendas and these could be summarised in three priorities:
- Localism and how the AONBs support this.
- Growth – the conference had heard powerful examples of landscapes contribution to economic growth but Defra had not been too smart in promulgating this more widely and this is an area hat they could do much better at
- Climate change adaptation and mitigation – DEFRA considered they could do much more promoting positive stories on this issue from AONBs.
Howard Davies from NAAONB commented that, going back to the launch of the PostNote one of the messages they have been very clear to send to government is that AONBs should be thinking less about themselves as the environmental sector than in the past because in this way they are constantly placing their recommendations at odds with the policies that are coming from other sectors.
So the sector needs to get its messages right about the environment underpinning other sectors in order to stand a better chance of being taken seriously.
Deputy Chairman of Cornwall AONB Partnership asked Peter Jefferson (Cornwall RCC) whether communities should be given more power than they have at the moment.
Peter responded by reflecting on the opportunities presented by the Localism Bill and that AONB’s must include communities in their planning and work together with them. Further, Peter suggested that local communities needed to be properly informed by AONBs on local issues so that they can make well informed decisions. If they are not, outside influences may effect decision making process and this might not serve the AONBs purpose.
Deputy Chairman of Cornwall AONB asked how money might be made available by DEFRA to keep landscapes look as they are at present in light of threats to farm payments.
The DEFRA representative responded by stating that following visits to AONBs they understand how important these payments are to delivering the outputs of AONBs and assured the conference they are aware of the issue.
Paul Jackson, board member of NAAONB asked Kevin Lavery (Cornwall Council) that with the massive change agenda for Cornwall how community planning has been involved in this process and how the AONB partnership has helped.
Kevin responded that in Cornwall a network of community groups have come together to take more responsibility in the development of localism but to be honest it had not been the highest priority.
However, the agenda has not been lost. In St Ives for instance local communities are exploring taking over the car parks. But these initiatives need to be able to carry on in a sustainable way. But the key issue is that there is real deficit of current plans so the priority is to make sure this vacuum is filled.
Peter Jefferson found it quite a challenge with the change to see unitary authority. Progress has been made but still some way to go in translating the process and getting community. Peter felt that they were about half way there.
The panel then gave other examples of good work in community engagement in Cornwall
That was agreement about how important its was that community voices are heard.
Question to DEFRA representative from Cornwall Coast AONB on the extent to which the value of the landscape to wellbeing was understood.
Andy Davey from DEFRA responded that it was well represented in the Natural Environment White Paper and that it was well understood in the department. The DEFRA representative also highlighted the need to better articulate the economic benefit of AONBs.
Shaun Spiers (CPRE) then spoke about a need for more direct involvement from the prime minister in issues involving the landscape and the “disaster” of handing responsibility in this area wholly to the treasury.
Retuning to the value of landscape in promoting well-being there was then talk of not underestimating the stimulating effect of the natural landscape in a creative and productive community. In Cornwall there is some innovative work being carried out on well-being programmes with companies such as Ginsters which has involved employees working together on outdoor projects in the environment. One of the aims is to reduce workplace stress and absenteeism and it was claimed that this work should actually pay for itself, so there was some disagreement over the role of government support in financing well being programmes.
There was also a plea that alongside AONB’s being advocated as a “tonic” we should not lose site of the fact that many of these places harbour issues linked to rural deprivation.
There was then discussion of the value of landscapes in the provision of eco-system services such as carbon sequestration and the impact to our economy if these landscapes are not allowed to perform these functions.
There was then a question about power lines and pylons and what pressure was being put on the national grid to consider alternative ways of distributing power that do not have a negative impact on the landscape.
Shaun Spiers responded that DECC and Ofgem were not doing enough to put pressure on National Grid but that civil society was involved through marches on the National Assembly of Wales and consideration was being given to doing something similar in Westminster. There was then talk of lack of strategic vision by National Grid.
Howard from NAAONB felt that, working with CPRE they were in a good position to continue to push for change.
Cotswold AONB then commented on community led neighbourhood plans and a piece of work that is being carried out in Gloucestershire concerning what might be learned from the experience of parish plans and numerous other local plan initiatives that might inform this process.
A question from the floor to Howard about closer working between AONBs and National Parks.
Howard reminded conference of the similar objectives of AONBs and National Parks and suggested opportunities for joint working should be taken at a local level. At a national level joint consultations are already undertaken. There was also a need to make sure that National Parks worked with AONBs to enhance the environment in the “gaps between” the large parks, in some of the finest landscapes in the UK.
The DEFRA representative commented that this is “rich territory” to look at through collaboration and discussed the value of landscape organisations all speaking with a single voice to achieve greater impact.
A question about how DEFRA sees AONBs reporting on their work.
Andy Davey talked about the need for a reduction of bureaucracy and why government should consider using the existing reporting mechanisms that AONB’s already use for their partnerships and supporting bodies.
Shropshire Hills AONB asked for reaction to integration of AONB management plan to their local authority’s unitary vision. However, does this address the issues of the sorts of growth that are compatible with the AONB or whether it’s about using the AONBs voice to reduce any dissent in this direction.
The point was then made that this is not a matter not for Whitehall, but for local councillors and communities such as here in Cornwall to make these decisions and decide where the trade off is going to be.
This discussion centred on how awareness of the natural environment can be promoted in the general public, when knowledge of the natural world is claimed to be at such a low level.
Howard responded that he was fully aware through personal experience of the low levels of awareness of the natural environment and that the solution lay in finding young people to champion the landscape and develop a proper sense of place.
In conclusion, Howard from NAAONB added that it is only when people lose this sense of place it is only then they fully understand what it is they have lost.