Chilterns AONB expansion plan is a 'hollow promise'

Exploring a Chilterns Landscape by Tony Marshall

The Chief Executive of the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) has said Government plans to expand the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) are a 'hollow promise'.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Natural England have announced this morning that they plan to expand the Chilterns and Surrey Hills AONBs and create two new AONBs in the Yorkshire Wolds and Cheshire Sandstone Ridge.

The Government said that the four areas 'have the potential to deliver over 40 per cent of the additional 4,000km2 required to meet the UK’s commitment to protect 30 per cent of our land [for nature] by 2030, which under UK leadership at the recent G7 Summit, all G7 members have now signed up to'.

However, given that the Government is already building the HS2 railway through part of the Chilterns AONB - including a BBOWT nature reserve - the Trust has asked what guarantee the status actually gives about protecting nature.

BBOWT Chief Executive Estelle Bailey said:

“At this very moment HS2 is ripping through protected areas of the Chilterns, destroying nature in its path. If we can’t protect the AONB we’ve got from development, what’s the point in labelling any more? This announcement feels like another hollow promise.

“We need real action and investment on the ground to properly manage and protect these precious landscapes to help restore nature, and we must hold projects like HS2 to account on their biodiversity net gain promises.  Only then can we hope to achieve our vision of more nature everywhere and tackle the climate and nature crisis.”

The Government's announcement today is part of its response to a report which Defra commissioned in May 2018.

The department asked Julian Glover - associate editor at the London Evening Standard - and an independent panel to consider how the Government could improve the management of National Parks and AONBs.

Their report, the Landscapes Review, was published in September 2019. Today the Government published a statement responding to the review.

The Wildlife Trusts (of which BBOWT is a member organisation) has said today that it fears the Government is squandering the opportunity for National Parks and AONBs to become better for nature through restoring habitats to benefit declining wildlife, increasing people’s enjoyment and to store carbon and help heal our climate. 

These designated places might look green, but too often they suffer from the effects of intensive agriculture or overgrazing – green hillsides are denuded of vegetation and wildflower meadows have been replaced by one species of rye grass.

Whilst some National Parks and AONBs have high-quality natural areas, many of these are isolated from each other and fragmented, leaving wildlife stranded in the middle of green deserts.

The Wildlife Trusts welcomed the Government’s ambition to protect 30 per cent of land for nature’s recovery, but said today’s announcement further demonstrates that the green rhetoric is not matched by reality on the ground.

The consideration and designation of two new AONB protected landscapes would not mean that land will become able to support an abundance of wildlife, nor to contribute to tackling our climate and nature emergencies.

Editor's notes

The Wildlife Trusts’ call for 30 per cent of land to be protected for nature is not a call for 30 per cent of land to be designated a SSSI – instead it is a vision for 30 per cent that’s better protected, better connected and put into recovery for nature.

The Wildlife Trusts’ report - A Wilder Recovery can be read here.

Source: SSSIs favourable condition: https://www.cnp.org.uk/news/raising-the-bar