What follows is a summary of the previous efforts made to have the Great Ouse Valley designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB); reference to  the current Government’s review of Designated Landscapes
as part of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan; and the Trust’s contribution to this. Finally, there is an exchange of letters between Michael Gove, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), and Julian Glover, a journalist and speechwriter journalist and speechwriter who has served as a special adviser in the UK Department for Transport, commissioned by Michael Gove to head the review. Please note the interim findings and the expectation that the review is expected to be published in autumn this year.

Origins of the AONB proposal

In 2014 a group of local people realised the special nature of our remarkable local Great Ouse Valley landscape, the benefits it offered our local communities for health and well-being and for local economies. They made an application to Natural England for it to be officially recognised as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This would give the area a higher degree of planning protection to help conserve its unique character and appeal, allow it to be managed as a whole not piecemeal, give it national recognition status, and thus attract more tourists. Although the presentation received praise and was regarded as sound, Natural England at this time lacked the resources and manpower to process it and it has remained in abeyance ever since. Frustrated by the delay and becoming alarmed at mounting planning pressures on the area, it was decided to reawaken public interest in the need to preserve our precious landscape by forming a new action group – the Great Ouse Valley Trust (see News & Events/Launch of Ouse Valley Trust).

Meanwhile in 2018 Michael Gove commissioned a Review of England’s Designated Landscapes from Julian Glover. In response to Julian Glover’s call for evidence in December 2018, the newly formed GOVT submitted these answers to his specific questions.

GOVT response to Julian Glover’s call for evidence

Question 7 . What works overall about the present system of National Parks and AONBs in England?

Since their inception AONBs have been recognised in a trusted planning system. It is generally agreed that the more rigorous planning/development control in current planning law afforded to these areas through designation is necessary, and will become even more important in the future. It is essential that the planning protection given to National Parks and AONBs is in no way reduced, and that any challenges are robustly defended.

Designation has successfully protected these areas of countryside from piecemeal erosion and intrusion so that they retain their individual identity. Their landscapes are conserved, and their built heritage respected. Access for the public is generally good.  Together, the National Parks and AONBs have become ‘flagship’ areas of the UK countryside – they are widely valued, well known and well used.

Question 8. What do you think does not work overall about the system and might be changed?

In recent years, the diminishing finance of Local Authorities and the likely demise of middle tiers of local government must cause serious concern to the administration of National Parks and AONBs. Also, the Conservation Boards are frequently seen as inclusive to conservationists and land owners of AONBS.  Therefore new forms of governance are required, and this is an opportunity to include and involve a more diverse and wide-ranging cross section of society who feel they too have a stake in the landscape and recognize the benefits that a healthy countryside can bring.

Question 9 and 10

  1. AONBs could do more for nature conservation, biodiversity, shaping landscape etc. A national network could be established where key habitats and landscapes are recognised and assessed for the current and potential value for delivering against national priorities for species and habitats; these would demonstrate priority national capital assets eg flood plain meadows, freshwater grazing marsh, ancient woodland, etc .
  2. National Parks and AONBs play an essential role in shaping landscape and beauty, and in protecting cultural heritage - as explained in the answer to Question 8, above. A national network of valued and protected landscapes is required for people to access, enjoy and gain benefit from for healthy lives.

Question 20 . Views on new designations, new types of designation and new AONBs

Most would agree that there are landscapes and areas that meet the current criteria for AONB status, but which have not been designated due to budgetary and organisational constraints and inertia. (The last newly created AONB – not an extension or merger of area - was in 1995).  New designations may be increasingly difficult to achieve due to local political pressure and resistance, and the legal and financial clout of potential developers. Yet these are the very reasons that demonstrate the urgent need for more high-level designation for landscapes under severe pressure from development. It is regrettable that areas that may have met the criteria for designation in the intervening 20+ years since the last designation was made, are now degraded and perhaps will not now be promoted and protected as they earlier deserved.

New AONBs can deliver the necessary protection for landscapes - however their current model may need to adapt and be more flexible. These new AONBs may need to be much

smaller. Firstly it is more difficult for a large area to achieve the criteria ‘bar’ for designation – the spread of development since 1949 has encroached considerably, so that there are now fewer rural tracts without detrimental, disqualifying elements.  Secondly, smaller areas are more quickly and easily achievable within a time scale, and may also be cheaper to deliver. The statutory management plan can be delivered through a variety of governance structures and with different funding models. 

When looking at the national picture of the location of AONBs, the distribution is far from even; there is a yawning gap of protected landscape in the central midland and eastern region.  Although there are landscapes worthy of designation and deserving of protection here, the current policy and programme for designation has signally failed these areas. 

Where possible, AONBs need to be more adjacent to population centres so that people do not have to travel considerable distances to enjoy their benefits.  The present distribution of AONBs disadvantages large numbers of the population.

New policies for AONB designation are vital – and they must be geared positively towards new areas. The stagnation of the last 20 years has to be reversed – urgently.

  1. Are the terms currently used the right ones? Should there be an alternative title for AONB?

The definition of ‘Beauty’ is very difficult to express and is complicated by pre-conceptions and interpretation. The NE criteria for AONB status tries to quantify Beauty by assessing quantities and qualities of such intangibles as a sense of the passing of time and return to nature , a distinctive sense of place, appeal to the senses, etc . In comparison, the Listing process for buildings and the Character Assessment for Conservation Areas is much more straightforward and objective.

The use of the word Beauty in the title for those designated landscapes with the greatest protection is misleading; it perpetuates a belief that a valued landscape must be conventionally attractive – and often, that attractiveness is the sole requirement. It is also no co-incidence that all the current AONBs are areas of hills and mountains where there are views and vistas – very much as in the taught appreciation of landscape beauty by artists in the Picturesque and Romantic tradition.

Because there are so many other criteria which necessarily contribute to the quality of the highest designated landscape, should the title of the areas instead be: Area of Outstanding Natural Heritage.

Natural Heritage, evaluated against set criteria on a national scale, would be better perceived and better recognised. ‘Outstanding Beauty’ is now a rather quaint title – it needs to change for the 21stC ; the modern understanding of what makes a landscape valuable has progressed since 1949.

Question 24 any other points to make?

We welcome this independent review of National Parks and AONBs . We feel there is an opportunity to improve the current system of designation of AONBs which, as we have explained in answers above, is necessary to safeguard the best of our country’s landscapes whilst meeting the needs of the national population in the 21stC.  Hopefully the review will encourage ideas and spark debate and engage with a wide cross section of stakeholders. Above all we hope the review will bring new energy and revitalise the current systems of designation and governance.

Here we offer, for consideration, our own experience of AONB designation – to date

In Cambridgeshire, a working group applied for AONB status for the Great Ouse Valley and Washes, and in 2014 submitted detailed reasons explaining why it considers that this exceptional area meets the current criteria for AONB designation. The Great Ouse Valley area is nationally important for its extensive sequence of traditionally managed floodplain meadows (about 2800ha). It has large clusters of lakes created by sand and gravel extraction of over 1300 ha, set to increase by a further 700ha over the next 20 years. Here the reed beds are nationally significant.

But the Great Ouse Valley area is under severe and growing development pressure. The working group was instigated by neighbouring Parish Councils with the support of an extensive number of stakeholders and organisations (many of them national), and widespread local support from people who are passionate about the river, meadows, woodland and lakes of ‘their’ area.

Nothing further has happened with the AONB application since 2014, when NE indicated that it did not have the resources to examine the application and undertake any evaluation.

Meanwhile the development pressure on the Great Ouse Valley landscape continues. The working group felt it could not, and must not, sit and wait indefinitely for an answer from NE. 

A CIO charity has now been formed - the Great Ouse Valley Trust (GOVT).  The Trust will champion the Great Ouse Valley and raise greater awareness of its special qualities. It will co-ordinate and support partners in delivering restoration and conservation.  It will be able to deliver these objectives through membership, grant funding, local business support, volunteering and tourism.

Cambridgeshire is one of the fastest-growing counties in the UK much of it driven by the hub of Bio-tech, Life Sciences, electronic, digital and other businesses around the University of Cambridge. It is also a county of intensive arable agriculture; there are very few open areas of landscape that are accessible to the general public.

The Great Ouse Valley is a hidden landscape – not seen by car, and as a result has slipped under the radar as a recognised place. Nevertheless it is an outstanding (although flat) unique landscape with a special natural heritage. It is also a green space for people to enjoy on foot, boat, horse and bike. It deserves designation as an AONB, and the main aim of the Great Ouse Valley Trust is to achieve this.

Exchange of letters between Michael Gove and Julian Glover

Email from Julian Glover on behalf Defra to GOVT Trustee Helen Boothman announcing the publication of the Landscapes Review

Letter from the Chair to James Palmer, Mayor of Cambridgeshire & Peterborough Combined Authority (CPCA). To date (February 2021) no acknowledgement or response has been received from the Mayor’s office.