Last week saw the launch of Landscapes for Everyone – a fresh attempt to draw attention to the natural and man-made beauty of the country we live in and to urge that this is valued more by all those who play a role in shaping it.
Landscapes for everyone
Not a particularly controversial issue, you might say, for who would disagree with that? But the launch has focused attention on the pressures currently faced by some of our most valued places from speculative development, thanks to weak planning policies. It has also inspired a challenging ‘plea for unity’ between environmental groups.
The flaws in the Government’s planning reforms are widely known. Despite almost universal support for localism and a plan-led system, we now effectively have a short-term, business-led approach to development. Local protest groups have erupted across the country as a consequence, and as the General Election approaches they are getting noisier. The failure of the new planning system to deliver on the promise of localism, despite the welcome emergence of neighbourhood planning, could well be a pivotal issue in a number of constituencies come May.
But the launch has also stimulated debate over another vital issue, one that is perhaps less well appreciated beyond the narrow world of the national environmental groups. It is an issue that, arguably, has dogged the environmental movement for decades. It concerns a perceived lack of unity in the movement which is sometimes evident in tensions between those who are motivated primarily by wildlife and species conservation and those whose focus is more on the wider landscape, in town and country. These tensions have recently been apparent in the debate over biodiversity ‘offsetting’ – the idea that the loss of wildlife in one location can be adequately compensated by provision elsewhere.
If I were to choose I would put myself in the landscape camp, as I think would most CPRE supporters, but I recognise the need to pursue a more integrated approach to conservation. The idea of place and local distinctiveness, pursued so imaginatively by Common Ground, should be at the heart of this new approach. It should recognise what we all instinctively appreciate - that the natural and built environments are experienced and valued as a whole. Institutional structures and policy frameworks need to reflect that unity.
This is the most important practical and philosophical challenge for the environmental movement at present. It is encouraging that nature and landscape groups came together in recent days to help persuade the Government to amend the Infrastructure Bill to exclude fracking from National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and Sites of Special Scientific Interest along with other areas designated for their nature conservation value, but the origin of these designations illustrates the problem presented by the landscape/nature divide.
The success of this latest campaign on controls over fracking also shows how we need to fight hard for our policy makers to recognise the importance of the agenda set out in Landscapes for Everyone. The beauty of our surroundings should not be taken for granted. We all have a responsibility to stand up for the countryside so there can be beautiful landscapes, rich in both wildlife and local character, for us all to enjoy for ever.
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