The Future of the Staff Unit
Members who read the Kingsbridge Gazette may have seen one or two recent articles and letters about the AONB unit and wondered what all the fuss was about.
The staff unit consists of six people, led by Robin Toogood. It answers to the AONB Partnership, which brings together representatives of the county council, the three local councils in which the AONB lies, Natural England, English Heritage, the Environment Agency, the National Trust and members of local groups such as our landowning, farming, business and tourism communities. The unit progresses the AONB Management Plan, which the partnership writes and adopts in conjunction with the local authorities.
The staff are most visible when they hold displays such as the recent one at Kingsbridge Show, but they also do a vast amount of work in communicating with, helping and cajoling the very many organisations whose activities impinge on the landscape, wildlife or culture of the AONB, and they are extremely successful in attracting grant money into the area for a wide range of environmental projects. The unit also has a duty to provide planning advice to the councils involved.
AONBs are national rather than local assets, and most of the money for them comes from central government. 75% of the core funding (i.e. excluding project money) for the unit currently comes from Defra, under an agreement which requires the other 25% to be found locally. In 2013-14 the contributions were Defra £K120 (73%), Devon County Council £K21 (13%), South Hams District Council £K23 (14%), total £K164. 78% of that was spent on staff.
For local convenience the unit has for many years been provided with administrative support by SHDC and accommodated in its offices. (For which services it pays back over £K20 - almost all the grant money that the council provides.) It remains however at the disposal of the partnership as a whole, so a move by SHDC to include it in its Transformation 2018 (T18) programme - a review of structures and methods by which the council expects to make great savings - was a surprise. At the AONB Partnership Committee meeting on 12 September at which the demand was discussed SHDC was forceful: the proposal 'had momentum' and should not be resisted. The committee acquiesced, subject to a number of serious reservations, and SHDC decided at its Executive meeting on 23rd October to go ahead with it.
Quite why SHDC was so keen to impose the review and why it seemingly thought it had the power to do so remain unclear. There was a good deal of misunderstanding, particularly on the likelihood of funding cuts and on the relationship between the unit and the council.
There may also have been an unexpressed aim of SHDC taking over the service presently provided by the AONB staff and thereby attracting the Defra grant to itself. It seems obvious that this would be a bad idea. The objectives of a district authority, primarily concerned with services, development and economic performance, will always be different from those of an AONB partnership, which must concentrate on the landscape it exists to protect. The present separation, in place throughout the country, may not work perfectly but it does allow both to operate effectively. Even if SHDC had a good record of caring for the protected area, AONB staff subject to council management would be in an impossible position and would have little credibility with the public.
It is true that funding from all sources is reducing and AONB staff units throughout the country are facing uncertainty. All are constantly having to watch their expenditure and look for new sources of money. But all are determined to maintain their independence, because without it they would lack the credibility they need to do their job. That credibility is also crucial for attracting funding, certainly from the voluntary environmental sector and possibly even from central government.
Since the SHDC Executive meeting on 23 October the picture has improved. It has been made clear that for 2015-16 Defra intends to grant a similar amount to that for the current year, although the mechanism will be slightly different. With a general election coming up there can be no certainty after that, but we do have some encouragement from the minister responsible: 'Can I say up front that I am fully committed to maintaining AONB grant-in-aid at the highest level my department can afford.' It is highly unlikely that any government would not provide grant aid for landscape management.
And it seems now to be recognised that the partnership will conduct a wider review, for which any recommendations from T18 will be considered alongside inputs from other sources, including the experience of other AONBs facing the same questions, and that any decisions will be for it alone. We should nevertheless be aware that this review could lead to quite far-reaching changes in the way in which our AONB is cared for. Will protection of the landscape take second place to the attraction of funding? Will genuine independence be achieved? Would it be better to have a small unit that concentrated on the core task of championing and protecting the AONB, using the limited money that central government is likely to continue to provide, or a bigger one with the resources to participate in a wider range of projects and thereby to attract funding from other sources?
If you have a view Robin Toogood would no doubt like to hear it.
District Cllr Richard Foss having stepped down, District Cllr Rosemary Rowe is acting as chair of the partnership until a new leader can be found. At the Partnership Committee's September meeting there was general agreement that whatever benefits there might have been in having a district councillor as chairman, it was time for a change.
The Partnership's constitution allows it to appoint an independent chairman from the wider community - "it would be expected that any such independent chairman would be a respected individual with significant relevant experience or skills and a good knowledge and understanding of the AONB and its issues.....the Chairman would be expected to act as a "champion" for the AONB at local, regional and national level; to be committed to the purposes of AONB designation and management, to act as an effective chairman of the Partnership Committee meetings and the AONB Annual Conference; and to provide support and guidance to the AONB Manager and staff team". The need is very great and the search is on. Details are on the AONB website.
The AONB needs a strong and independent partnership and staff unit, and it is important that we support them in overcoming current difficulties. The Partnership Committee is in need of more contact with, and help from, the community. Its quarterly meetings are open to the public and we should try sometimes to attend them.
On 17 March 2015 the Society wrote as follows to all the members of the SDAONB Partnership Committee:
The Future of the South Devon AONB Unit
The current review of the South Devon AONB unit, initiated by SHDC, appears to have become a much wider exercise in which even the purposes of the unit, and therefore to some extent of the partnership, are for discussion. The South Hams Society welcomes this, because it believes the AONB needs better protection than it is currently receiving. But a review which, intentionally or otherwise, has become so radical should be open to the public.
Funding after April 2016 is clearly uncertain but it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the government will continue to give financial support for the local conservation of nationally designated landscape and that its contribution will continue far to outstrip any support from local authorities or other sources. Some comfort on this was given by Lord de Mauley only recently and it confirms us in the view that the essential work of the staff unit should be that which the government currently thinks worthy of public support, as set out in Schedule 2, Part 2 of the current Memorandum of Agreement and summarised earlier in that document as 'ensuring that the natural beauty of AONBs is conserved, enhanced and promoted for the benefit of all'.
This core purpose is morally based ('It's for everybody, now and forever, so we mustn't spoil it'), it is central to 'sustainability', and it is backed up by law. It can always be very strongly argued that it deserves funding by the public and by benefactors. The current emphasis on economic growth will sooner or later be tempered by a greater regard for quality of life, and our natural assets will become more highly prized than they are now. Damage that has been done to them will be regretted.
The review grew quite suddenly out of a local misconception on future funding. Nearly all the discussion is still about generating or attracting income for the unit, rather than about conserving the AONB, and it seems that the options with which you will be presented will reflect this emphasis. We see a clear danger of a descent into alliances and projects which make little or no contribution to the core purpose but which may be gathered under the AONB umbrella because they provide levels of activity and income which will support a staff unit of the present size. This may put the unit in a light where neither the government or the public think it is doing a sufficiently well-defined or important job to be worth paying for, and/or that it is not the best organisation for the specific job of looking after the AONB. As far as the public perception in South Devon is concerned, we would contend that this is already happening.
The partnership and the unit are here as local agents for the conservation of the AONB's landscape. The overwhelming threat to their work comes from a poor local appreciation of the AONB, as a result of which a low standard of protection is tolerated. The unit needs to be able to promote the qualities of the landscape with conviction and to offer planning advice with authority. So good representational skills are needed, as are landscape and planning qualifications. Beside these capabilities, capacity for project work is comparatively unimportant and may sometimes be counterproductive.
If the aim of a project, however worthy, would be of equal value outside an AONB it may be that it is not one that the unit should get involved in. For example, all other things being equal, money for creating habitat should arguably be spent in places where the human population doesn't enjoy beautiful surroundings but would benefit from the opportunity to work with nature. And where projects genuinely do contribute to the conservation of natural beauty but do not result in obvious visible change, their value needs to be clearly explained to the public.
The many local people who want to resist inappropriate development affecting the AONB should be given support and advice. They would see value in the AONB unit if, for example, it explained the protection that the NPPF and local plans provide, and if it worked out and promulgated good practice where development is justified and allowed.
The staff of the unit should miss no opportunity of promoting the AONB to local residents and visitors. This means talking to any community that will receive them (including the parishes, local societies and schools) about its qualities, its purpose and the constraints it imposes. (This would perhaps be best done with a presence in a town rather than in a council headquarters.)
We ask the partnership not to lose sight of the obvious point that its true objective must be the long-term conservation of the landscape rather than securing the future of a staff unit of the present size. It should not be rushed into decisions which might result in the long term protection of the AONB being compromised, at least until the next government has given some indication of future funding.
and on 9 April 2015 the Partnership replied:
Thank you for your recent letter sent to members of the AONB Partnership Committee about the future management of the South Devon AONB. The Committee agreed that I should reply on its behalf.
The task of “conserving and enhancing” an AONB (which is our statutory purpose) is a broad one: the South Devon AONB Management Plan sets out an ambitious programme of actions covering landscape character, habitats, archaeology, watercourses, shoreline, footpaths, farmland management, community engagement and much more. The projects that we at the AONB staff unit are currently developing involve up to a hundred partner organisations and significant amounts of external funding, aiming (amongst many other things) to promote hedgerow management, woodland and orchard restoration, reducing river pollution, improving habitat corridors, and promoting environmental education and awareness through schools, events, campaigns and tourism businesses.
There is nothing unusual about this approach: all AONB partnerships in Britain’s 46 AONBs pursue a similar range of projects and activities. Our ability to forge local partnerships, bring in resources and make things happen on the ground is regarded by government as one of our strengths. The need for active land management and partnership work was re-emphasised in the consultation process of the South Devon AONB Management Plan. We do not therefore share your view that our capacity to do this kind of project activity is comparatively unimportant or even counter-productive.
That said, you rightly point out that the task of protecting the AONB from inappropriate development needs particular attention, especially given recent high profile developments some of which have been approved by planning authorities against the recommendation of the AONB office. Again, our experience in South Devon is not unique: all AONB offices find planning and development a challenging and controversial area of their work. The duty to protect AONBs in the planning system lies squarely with the planning authorities, and the planning system gives the AONB partnership no statutory role in the process. With over a thousand planning applications a year in the South Devon AONB, we can provide formal comments to the planning authorities only on the most significant ones.
One of the commitments made in the AONB Management Plan was that we would publish a planning guidance document which will set out clearly how developments can best conserve and enhance the special qualities of the AONB. It will draw on the National Planning Policy Framework and recent appeal decisions and court rulings to clarify how the duty to protect the AONB translates into practice. We have just started work on this planning guidance and it will be open for consultation during the process, when I am sure the South Hams Society will want to contribute. We believe that by producing this planning guidance we can have a more effective voice in the planning system.
Finally, your letter expresses concern that the AONB Partnership has recently become unduly absorbed in the future of the AONB staff unit and its funding. While it is right that the care and management of the AONB doesn’t just become a staffing- and funding-led issue, there is no getting away from the fact that AONB management services are under real pressure. The year-on-year cuts to our core funding and the potential impact of South Hams Council’s T18 internal reorganization were a real concern to the AONB Partnership, although we now have a clearer way forward. We appreciate that government has worked hard to support us at a time of severe funding constraint, but we cannot take anything for granted: for example, the eight AONBs in Northern Ireland have just learned that all Northern Ireland Office funding to them will cease in July this year. The AONB Partnership considers that having a viable and appropriately resourced AONB staff unit in place is an important priority.
We know that we at the AONB office need to raise the profile of the AONB further, to have more impact in our work, and to articulate more forcefully what needs to be done to sustain it as a beautiful landscape and a national treasure to pass on to future generations. The South Hams Society is quite right to challenge us about our work, but amenity societies can also be important partners and we need to look for opportunities to work more closely together where we share common ground.
Robin Toogood, AONB Manager