Golden years for treasured area of truly outstanding natural beauty
All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others – said George Orwell – and the same could probably be said of landscapes. The UK has national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, special sites of scientific interest and a plethora of other landscape designations – and one Westcountry area which enjoys "more equal" status is celebrating half a century of prestigious specification this year.
The East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is 50 years old and the tiny team that oversees 103 square miles of its special and unique landscapes has been using the occasion to look at successes in the past and challenges for the future.
In doing so they invited the Western Morning News along on a tour of the AONB so we could see some of East Devon's glories for ourselves and at the same time learn more about the special, now historic, designation.
And on our tour we were joined by a professor who once oversaw all such designated areas, and whose father helped invent the British idea of national parks and AONBs.
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The first thing I asked Professor Michael Dower, who for more than four years in the 1990s was director general of the Countryside Commission, was to explain the difference between the two types of select area.
It seems that national parks were seen by his late father John Dower as being wide open upland areas that appeared somehow wilder than the heavily farmed landscapes of the lowlands. However, there was never any kind of idea that one designation should be superior to the other – even though it's turned out that the nationals parks seem to be revered as the most precious landscape jewels in our crown.
"Unlike national parks in America – which are government property wholly owned by the States and have nobody living in them – our national parks and AONBs are lands which have been settled for centuries," said Prof Dower as we strolled towards High Peak above Sidmouth in the company of Chris Woodruff, East Devon AONB manager. "They are places which people have farmed and mined and forested – where there are villages, and so on. It was they, not the public authorities, who created the landscapes.
"But these areas had such qualities it was thought right, from the 1940s onwards, to bring in some measure of state protection and management for the qualities of that landscape" he explained. "The people who run these places have therefore to work very closely with the people who own the land. We're on, for example, a piece of National Trust property now with whom the AONB team work very closely – and down there you have the Clinton Estates, with whom they also work closely."
Prof Dower stopped to emphasise the following point which has, arguably, helped make our protected landscapes what they are today: "The basic principle is this – if you want to protect a fine landscape created by a way of life, then you have to sustain that way of life in modern form. That's why, for example, the Common Agricultural Policy is helping farmers – the rural development policy is helping other parts of the rural economy – and there are public efforts to look after things like footpaths, historic monuments, nature reserves.
"All of that requires efforts by all these different people in partnership with one another.
"My father John was the secretary of a campaigning committee before the Second World War set up by the Council for the Protection of Rural England to create national parks. And when he was invalided out of the army during the war he was asked to prepare the report on national parks published in 1945 – which became the basis of for the present legislation set out in 1949 and onwards.
"Under that were created first the national parks – which were defined by him as extensive areas of relatively wild country whose natural beauty needed to be protected – and, second, the areas of outstanding natural beauty which had the same landscape quality, but which were not so wild. "This is why East Devon is not a national park, although the definitions have changed somewhat over the years," Prof Dower went on. "You don't protect these places by simply stopping the wrong developments like wind-farms – but also by making sure they are effectively managed, either by the private owners or by the public authorities.
"Even on Dartmoor, which might appear bleak, human activity has been very important and remains so – here you are in a more enclosed and settled countryside and you have a different pattern of opportunities and also of recreation. On Dartmoor you have extensive continuous access where you can walk across the moor – in country like this the challenge is more about keeping footpaths and bridleways open where people can thread through the countryside, hopefully without getting tin the hair of the farmer – and enjoy the beauty of the landscapes that farmers have helped to create." Next I asked Chris Woodruff to tell us more about his East Devon AONB. "We've had the designation since 1963 but we've only had a team in place to manage that specially for the past ten years," he began, explaining that the AONB was backed by a partnership of 19 organisations who were its founders.
"They make it all possible," he said, mentioning organisations like the local district and county councils as well as Natural England and many of the other bodies behind the AONB. "Then we have a range of other organisations supporting what we do and advising us. Some of those partners are landowners, or the rights of way department of the local authority and so on. But basically you are talking to exactly one third of the AONB team now – there are only three of us.
"So we have to work with others. Next door we have Dorset AONB – and to the north of us there's the Blackdowns AONB. With them we share lots of similarities and we are running a joint programme with the Blackdowns called Making It Local, which is using European funding to support the local economy.
"We work along the World Heritage Site (Jurassic Coast) with the Dorset AONB team as it covers both our coastlines. This landscape has a lot of visitor pressures," continued Mr Woodruff. "The coast path is very popular, so we do a lot of work along the coastal corridor. But also we have the East Devon Way, which is an inland route of 40 miles that offers an opportunity for people to enjoy areas away from the coast. People are drawn to the coast, but there is an opportunity to filter people away from that to provide benefits for business and raise awareness of places outside this concentrated patch."
Mr Woodruff admitted that AONBs tended not to share the high profile enjoyed by national parks. "AONBs are Cinderellas compared to them," he shrugged. "But we've done surveys in the past ten years that show a much increased awareness of this AONB. It's risen from something like 40% to 80 or 90% – so people know about it not only because of the planning, development pressure – but also the work we are doing. People are understanding now what an AONB is more than they did 20 years ago.
"Our big challenge – in a shrinking public sector – is to maintain the good work we've been doing. We've got a really good partnership here – it's very open and non-political – and it's doing good work. We need to continue making the best of the funding programmes that are targeted at rural communities. We need to be smarter about that and about using European funding opportunities to draw down more for the communities, for the landscape and for businesses."
Prof Dower added that he thought the work of AONB teams would become ever more important. "There is a limited amount of land; the number of us is growing; our demands are growing and changing," he said. "For example, things like wind and solar farmers are coming our way – and in that context the places which are most precious need even more protection.
"I don't think party politics per-se needs to come in to this. The recent review of the national planning policy framework kept intact the sense of special status for both the national parks and the AONBs – they will be exempt in the search for wind farms and things like large quarries – unless there was some overriding national interest.
"They will remain of vital importance to us all," concluded Prof Dower. "But that doesn't mean that it is going to be an easy ride – the present pressure on public finances is certainly going to create difficulties."
We came to a halt high above the English Channel and looked east past Sidmouth, along the dramatic coastline where, only a few years ago, in January 2007, the MSC Napoli ran into trouble. Hordes flocked to the area's beaches where there were fears of pollution and other dire consequences. Fortunately for us all it was realised that the wreck threatened one of England's finest areas of outstanding natural beauty – and the coast was saved, proving just one example of how important these landscape designations are.