NATIONAL CHARACTER AREAS

  • Written by Andrew Davis
  • Posted on Apr 14, 2022
  • Articles

The country of England has long been divided up into smaller areas or regions for several purposes.  In the first millennium AD, there were separate kingdoms, Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and the like, which were unified by King Athelstan in 927.  We have had counties for centuries, at one time divided into Hundreds, enough land to sustain approximately one hundred households.  In a two tier system, we now have counties and districts with administrative responsibilities and, more recently, unitary authorities.

But these are all administrative areas, the boundaries of which have little relation to geology or landscape.  We have fifteen National Parks, ten in England that cover 10% of land area and reflect the environment with some administrative functions, planning for example.  The aim is to ‘conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage and to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of National Parks by the public’.  There are also 46 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, 34 in England, that have the same objective except for the latter public enjoyment part.  They cover 18% of the countryside but have little direct administrative function.

The Environment Agency uses River Catchments, which is very useful when it comes to water resource and flood management but some are very large and do not fully reflect the landscape and its wildlife.  Far well less known are National Character Areas.  The concept originated in Hampshire in the early 1980s and was developed by the Countryside Commission later in the decade.  At much the same time, English Nature was working on a similar project called Natural Areas.  Thankfully they came together and, in 1996, published Joint Character Areas with a map and description of each one.  There are 159 separate areas based on geology, soil type, land form, biodiversity and primary vegetation types.  The character is then determined by the interaction of man, particularly farmers, with these natural elements.

To the north and west of Newbury is Area 116 the Berkshire and Marlborough Downs, the boundaries of which are similar to those of the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, from Devizes in the south west to the Thames between Wallingford and Pangbourne where it joins up with the Chilterns.  The landscape is open rolling downland with valleys, some dry some with chalk streams such as the Kennet and Lambourn.  The north facing scarp is often steep whilst the dip slope to the south is more gentle and often wooded.  Frequent tree roundels adorn the downs, usually a sign of a clay cap outbreak.  Towards Devizes, the landscape is very open with few trees but there are more woods to the east and, of course, Savernake Forest in the centre.  It is an ancient landscape with amazing archaeology dating back millennia such as Avebury and Silbury Hill, with sarsen stones and several white horses carved into the chalk hillsides.

Newbury itself is in 129 Thames Basin Heaths, a sausage shaped area stretching from Kintbury in the west to Esher in the east.  To the south is 130 Hampshire Downs, covering most of North Hampshire.  The descriptions of each area are extremely useful in understanding what makes each so different and special.

It has long been suggested that these natural areas should be used for land use planning as there is a wealth of evidence to inform decisions.  It makes far more sense than land use planning based on administrative divisions because, as the geology, topography and soil type is similar throughout the area, so will be the response of farmers.  This is especially relevant at present as Defra considers how best to roll out the Environmental Land Management Scheme, Local Nature Recovery in particular.  This will be the main replacement for Countryside Stewardship and have a similar range of options available to farmers.  It is proposed that Local Management Plans will set out the character of a specific area which will then be used to set targets and assess applications.  The question is who draws up the Local Management Plans.

Defra has been conducting a number of Test and Trials to compare different approaches.  One was based on a local authority responsible for the planning as this ties in with other aspects of planning, biodiversity offsetting for example.  I am told it was not successful, not least because farmers are crucial to the process and inherently distrust local authority planners.

Another Test and Trial took place in Hampshire with a totally different approach.  Here an Advisory Board was set up chaired by an independent, non-voting, member to include the CLA, NFU, Southern Water, covering the private sector, the National Trust, the Wildlife Trust and CPRE, the voluntary sector and Cabinet Members from all tiers of local government covering Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Health and Wellbeing.

A convenor or technical officer consulted farmers, landowners and others with an interest in land management to bring forward recommendations to the Advisory Board.  Local Management Plans could then be agreed and used as targets to inform farmers applying for ELMS participation.  It would not be practicable to have a separate Advisory Board for all 159 National Character Areas, they might be drawn up on a county basis.  However, the Local Management Plans could be based on National Character Areas building on what makes each a unique and special landscape.