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ENGLAND'S FINEST LANDSCAPES AT RISK

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Many of England's finest landscapes are threatened because no one is obliged to look after them. Many local authori...
Many of England's finest landscapes are threatened because no one is obliged to look after them. Many local authorities do not bring sufficient resources to bear. So says the Countryside Commission in launching a consultation document on the funding and management of the 37 nationally important English landscapes designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).

Commission chairman Richard Simmonds urges all those interested in our finest countryside to put forward ideas for managing and protecting these areas. 'When, almost 50 years ago, the government created the concept of AONBs alongside National Parks, their aim was to protect the character of England's finest areas. But the legislation made no-one clearly responsible for making sure that

AONBs were effectively protected and managed. The conservation of their natural beauty has therefore been dependent on the initiative of local authorities and others, supported by commission advice and grant aid.

'Since 1949 the countryside has changed radically. In those days the rural economy was very different. Few areas had pressure for housing or industrial development. There were few commuters and cars were used much less. Now AONBs are under very considerable pressure, not least because they are so much more accessible to visitors and to those who want to live there,' Mr Simmonds adds. 'We foresee that conservation and management of AONBs could go backwards in the next few years if changes are not made.

'The funding of AONBs, in particular, relies heavily on discretionary local authority funding supported by grants from the Commission and other sources for particular projects. With public spending under continuing pressure, this is a precarious way to care for these very special assets.'

The consultation paper outlines some ideas for improving the funding and management of AONBs. The commission will also be reviewing in more detail the relative resource needs of a sample of AONBs and the potential for using other sources of revenue.

In 1996/97 spending on AONBs by local authorities supported by grants from the Commission totalled around£6.8m. However the commission estimates that just under£14m a year is required plus additional project funding to enable priority projects to be undertaken.

'Though much has been achieved, work to promote conservation and to provide for and manage recreation in AONBs has been severely restricted because there is no long-term secure funding or mechanism for management,' Mr Simmonds points out.

This new consultation paper assesses the effectiveness of current resources for AONB management and the reasons why powers and resources need to be improved; sets out the commission's view for the future of AONBs and asks for comments. Some of the proposed approaches for providing secure funding and management of the AONBs are:

1. New legislation giving local authorities statutory responsibilities for AONBs

2. New legislation to enable AONB Conservation Boards to be set up to administer AONBs that are facing particular pressures or management needs, with the power to raise money by a levy on local authorities

3. Permanently ring fencing a central government budget, administered by the Countryside Commission, covering core costs of managing AONBs

4. Recognition in the Government Revenue Support Grants that local authorities need to spend extra to manage AONBs

There could also be ways of improving the funding for special projects, such as:

1. Creating an AONB Challenge Fund, administered by the commission on behalf of the government;

2. Using existing Challenge Funds to provide an AONB Project Programme

3. Establishing charitable bodies for AONBs to raise money locally

4. Increasing funding from sources such as car parking charges, sales of publications and souvenirs and business sponsorship

After the consultation period ends it is proposed to hold a seminar for AONB Joint Advisory Committee (JAC) Members and equivalents. This

will enable the commission to report on the findings from the consultation and hear any further comments. The commission will then advise the government on the steps it believes to be necessary to secure the protection of AONBs - as was clearly intended when the government of the day legislated to create them in 1949.

-- Copies of the consultation paper 'Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty: Providing for the future', CCP523, are available free of charge from the Countryside Commission Postal Sales, PO Box 124, Walgrave, Northampton NN6 9TL, (tel 01604 781848).

-- The consultation period will close on 31 October 1997. A draft report is expected from the chosen consultants by the end of the year. The consultation document contains a questionnaire to help consultees to respond.

-- The Countryside Council for Wales, CCW, is carrying out a similar assessment of AONB funding in Wales.

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