The Minister of Culture and Sport, John Griffiths, has initiated an independent review of the value and governance of Wales’ designated landscapes. These are National Parks such as the Brecon Beacons, Snowdonia and the Pembrokeshire Coast, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) such as the Gower, the Wye Valley and the Clwydian Range, all of which occupy about 25 % of the land area of Wales.
The Minister’s announcement in June 2014 comes as a welcome relief. Two years ago, Minister Griffiths released a proposed policy for protected landscapes for public comment that said little about communities associated with protected landscapes, accessibility by public transport and cultural heritage. The proposal could have been turned around and included as an issue for discussion in public consultation documents regarding Natural Resources, the Historic Environment, or the Planning Bill, but that did not happen.
The government’s reticence on the subject of protected landscapes is understandable. At the Williams Commission representatives of the agricultural community expressed concern about the disadvantage of farming in national parks because of restrictive planning arrangements, and urged the government to transfer the planning powers of national park authorities in Wales to local governments. This signified a clear vote of no confidence in what has been accomplished in national parks and AONB’s since their establishment during the 1950’s.
The Minister asks a basic question about our understanding of the value of National Parks in Wales, and by extension the AONB’s. Hopefully, the word “value” will be interpreted in the broader context of environment, social and economic well being, community, culture and good government, as opposed to strict economic and financial parameters. The Minister’s question also suggests the possibility of a learning gap in Wales regarding the value of protected landscapes.
Back in 1971, Ned Thomas reminded us that, “the outlines of scenery are deep in the Welsh consciousness. But one only knows this quality of depth through reading, in history and literature, about the past, feeling it has it has been felt by those who have lived Welsh history within that landscape.” It was necessary, he said, “to assert this feeling for Wales against the way of looking from outside that sees it as a picturesque view, or, more recently as recreation space.” Historian John Davies expressed this sentiment when he wrote “The Making of Wales” in 1996, as with author Jan Morris, and Kyffin Williams in his paintings.
In outline, the terms of reference of the independent review include the Minister’s suggestion that a single new designation be established for protected landscapes in Wales instead of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty; that suitable arrangements be proposed for the governance of these areas, and recommendations on how these considerations will work in the context of the Well-being of Future Generations Bill, joined-up government and the reform of local government.
The idea of a single designation probably derives from the National Planning Policy Framework of 2012, which advised that AONB’s and national parks have equal status when it comes to planning consents and other sensitive issues. The Policy, in turn, was based on Westminster-based statutes such as the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949 and the Countryside Rights of Way Act, 2000.
Under present circumstances of devolution, the Minister’s review will be obliged to work within the parameters of the existing laws, which may restrict full consideration of the option that the Minister has in mind. Unless the Welsh government signals its willingness to consider the adoption of a Welsh law for all protected areas, including the marine environment, either in the current raft of proposed laws, or in future in conjunction with the reform of local government.
The Minister’s review group will also require a frame of reference against which to evaluate the values of protected landscapes. This brings to mind a paradigm for protected areas proposed a few years ago by Michael Beresford and Adrian Philips. Michael Beresford was then associated with the defunct International Centre for Protected Landscapes at Aberystwyth, so the point could be made that Wales was in the vanguard of protected landscape management at the time. Their ideas about protected landscapes meet the requirements of sustainability, local governance, the role of civil society and the importance of incorporating Welsh culture and heritage into an overall framework of values for protected landscapes.
The review might also consider Wales’ World Heritage Sites as case studies. In this respect, Blaenavon as exemplar for community engagement, Pontcysyllte as partnership and collaboration between governments and civil society, and the proposed theme on the slate quarrying industry in Snowdonia as a challenge in community, collaboration and public engagement. A review of experience of jurisdictions outside the United Kingdom, such as Norway, would be worthwhile. Moreover, the government of Portugal recently announced a rebranding strategy for protected areas that might enliven the government’s discussions with farmers in Welsh protected landscapes.
An englyn by Priffardd Tomi Evans serves as a final reminder of value in the protected places and spaces of Wales:
Daear rhamant a garw drumiau, – cwmwd
Y comin a’r creigiau,
I’n cendl, tir ei chwedlau,
Anial dir yr hen helfâu.