This month see the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Countryside Act. To celebrate this, an event was held recently by past staff and Board members of the Countryside Commission. This was an opportunity to reflect on some of the achievements of the Act, many of which are still influencing countryside work today.
The Act was developed against a backdrop of an increasingly urban population, becoming more isolated from the benefits that the natural environment can provide and a recognition that something needed to be done about this. Sounds familiar!
The formal purpose of the act was
…to enlarge the functions of the National Parks Commission (NPC), to confer new powers on local authorities and other bodies for the conservation and enhancement of natural beauty and for the benefit of those resorting to the countryside and … to amend the law about trees and woodlands, footpaths, bridleways, and other public paths.
The Countryside Act bestowed powers to undertake or grant-aid experimental research projects, powers that have now been inherited by Natural England. From this came hugely significant initiatives that remain with us today. One example is the early thinking and piloting of practical land management that led to Countryside Stewardship including a landscape monitoring initiative that has now been running for 44 years (Another was Country Parks next post)
A second and contrasting example is the support that was given to the National Small Woods Association. This is described by Ian Baker (current CEO) in his blog, which also provides a further insightful consideration of the 50th anniversary: https://www.facebook.com/smallwoods.org.uk/posts/2191623497518998. The establishment of the National Forest in the early 1990’s in Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire and the suite of Community Forests which followed elsewhere is yet another example. These have provided the inspiration for the commitment to create a new Northern Forest in the Defra 25 Year Plan.
Natural England’s drive to create resilient landscapes and seas; to put people at the heart of the environment and to grow natural capital, enshrined in their Conservation 21 Strategy, now carries the mantle in the 21st Century. In this context, it was great to hear the reflections of those involved in some of the early pioneering work including from Adrian Phillips and Michael Dower, both Director Generals of the Countryside Commission, created by the Act to replace the NPC, as well as those of Marian Spain (Natural England Board member, CEO Plantlife, New Forest Park Authority), who focused on the continuing relevance of the legacy of the Countryside Act today.
Next year the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 will be 70 years old and no doubt itself will be the subject of its own anniversary celebrations. Michael Gove, Secretary of State (Defra) recently announced a review of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This review, to be led by Julian Glover, will bring us back full circle to ‘look at how these iconic landscapes meet our needs in the 21st century’. The legacy of the great achievements that stemmed from the Countryside Act 1968 will no doubt be an important backdrop to the Glover Review.
With thanks to David Vose, Natural England.