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Keeping the Countryside for Future Generations
by Peter Reeves

The countryside of England and Wales is renowned for its variety and beauty. From the Lake District in the north of England to the rolling hills of the South Downs lies an immense range of landscape. Blending with this rural scene are thriving villages built of traditional materials.

Since the late 1940s, changing methods of agricultural and urban development were seen to be damaging areas of natural beauty. From that time, increasing effort has been made to protect and improve the countryside.

Most of the land in England and Wales is privately owned and used by people for their livelihood. Basically, conservation is achieved by regulation of land use, financial incentives and management of special sites to conserve their natural features and wildlife.

Town and Country Planning law is the foundation of present UK Government policy. This provides strict control over new development. Decisions by planning authorities are guided by structure plans setting out the main lines for future land use.

A network of statutory bodies and agencies has been created with powers to support and implement Government countryside policy. Their work is reinforced by an array of specific laws that protect wildlife and access to rural areas.

Footpaths and hedges must not be interfered with. Farmers are required to store, use and dispose of pesticides safely. The use of poisons for pest control is strictly regulated. Tree felling is controlled by a licensing system.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 was passed because of an increasing need for comprehensive wildlife protection. This protects birds and their eggs, animals, plant species and sites generally. Under the act, international conventions affecting wildlife have been ratified.

Advising the Government upon conservation of the countryside in England and Wales is a key role of the Countryside Commission. A projected increase of 4.4 million new homes by 2016 will affect practically every part of the country. This gives rural planning and enhancement of the beauty of the countryside a high priority.

Government grant in aid for the Countryside Commission is expected to be at the rate of 24 million pounds sterling annually until the year 2000. In partnership with other organisations, financial support is given to protect and manage coasts, national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty and forests.

The long-term nature of conservation is strikingly illustrated by the Community Forest programme. This was initiated jointly by the commission and the Forestry Commission in 1989. Its aim is to be double the area now covered by forest over the next 40 years.

Mersey Forest is the largest Community Forest project. Present tree cover in the district is low, being only four per cent compared with a national average of 10 per cent. In the Cleveland Community Forest area in north-east England, 500 hectares of woodland have already been planted.

Supported by National Lottery funding, the Countryside Commission is managing a Millennium Greens' programme. This project will provide at least 250 communities with a green space where people can relax, children play and everyone can enjoy nature. The demand for high quality food at low cost has had a major impact upon the countryside. Uncontrolled farming methods can damage landscape, rare plants and wildlife.

By the Agriculture Act of 1986, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (MAFF) has a duty to balance the demands of agriculture with other rural interests in England. Parallel arrangements exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where authorities cooperate with MAFF.

MAFF encourages and helps farmers to conserve the landscape, wildlife and historic features of the countryside. Central to this policy is the creation of Environmentally Sensitive Areas (ESAs). This innovation began when, in partnership with the Countryside Commission, grazing marshes at Halvergate in the Norfolk Broads, eastern England, were successfully brought into a conservation management scheme.

Farmers who enter into an ESA scheme are offered payments to carry out agricultural practices that conserve or improve the landscape and wildlife habitats. In this way they are able to combine commercial farming and conservation.

Apart from this overall concern for the use of agricultural land, other bodies created by statute are entrusted with aspects of countryside care. English Nature is empowered by law to designate sites in England of special interest for wildlife or natural features.

These includes Sites of Special Scientific Interest of which there are approximately 3,900 covering 951,186 hectares. Owners of sites> are legally bound to notify English Nature of work that might affect them.

The Rural Development Commission works for the well-being of people who live and work in the English countryside. The commission is concerned to see that job opportunities are created and preserved and that development enhances the environment.

A major aspect of its activity is rural regeneration achieved by promoting economic and social needs of areas with greatest need. Assistance is given to initiatives ranging from business support, training, community development and help for the disadvantaged.

Without overall protection from damaging activity and pollution, efforts to preserve the countryside and wildlife would be in jeopardy. In 1995 the Environment Agency was set up with responsibility for regulating and managing the environment in England and Wales.

The agency has an annual budget of 560 million pounds sterling. Its main statutory functions are the management of water resources and control of industrial pollution, sewage and waste disposal. Other duties include river quality maintenance, flood control and coastal protection.

To protect the environment, the agency has wide powers. Legally enforceable rules to control pollution can be imposed and construction works undertaken. Whatever methods are used thought must be given to the conservation of flora and fauna and preservation of areas of natural beauty.

Countryside Commission
John Dower House
Crescent Place, Cheltenham
Gloucester, United Kingdom, GL50 3RA
Telephone: +44 1242 521381
Fax: +44 1242 584270

Environment Agency for England and Wales
Waterside Drive, Aztec West, Almondsbury
Bristol, United Kingdom, BS12 4UD
Telephone: +44 1454 624400      Copyright ©1999, LLC