Keeping It Special in the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Stour Valley Project
As manager of a publically funded team whose aim is to conserve and enhance the natural beauty and special qualities of an area of countryside along the Stour Valley I am often asked…
‘What is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, what do you actually do and why do you do it?’
My response to that question is outlined below, but the brief answer is that an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty is an area of land that has been deemed so important to society that it is designated by Government. The legislation relating to these protected landscapes ensures that public bodies and statutory undertakers, for example utility supply companies, have to demonstrate they have paid due regard to the purposes of the designation, to conserve and enhance its landscape, when carrying out their operations. The area is also subject to both local and national planning policy to ensure the area is protected for the nation. In planning terms the designation is equivalent to National Park status.
What we do relates to protecting the natural beauty of the area by influencing planning policy and consents, facilitating projects that enhance the area’s landscape and wildlife and inform as many people as possible about its special qualities.
Returning to the original question, this is something I often reflect upon, not least when I am seeking to justify the public investment in our work and in the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Stour Valley Project. As is often the case, it is when my children, friends and members of my family are sitting around the dining table and conversation turns to work that I have to justify what the team does. When I think what the staff team does, I often struggle to encapsulate our work in a perfect ‘soundbite’ that is so often expected in a time of instant responses.
At these times and for those with a wider and perhaps longer perspective perhaps, I ask them to think of their favourite place in the Stour Valley. The response is often a view, a walk or a glimpse of wildlife and I can then bounce off their interest to discuss our work.
I have already said that we are a publicly funded team and although this is true, we are working to reduce the reliance on the public purse to pursue our aims. I do however feel that the investment is justified when we consider that the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) designation of the Dedham Vale is a national decision made by the Government’s advisors on the natural environment and should be supported by the state. Indeed 75% of our core costs for the AONB work comes from central Government (DEFRA), with the rest coming from local Government. I use the phrase core costs carefully as for every pound we take from the public purse we match with another pound from sponsorship, donations, grant applications and income generation to deliver project work, thus doubling our ‘turnover’ and ability to conserve and enhance this special area.
Little Bradley – river restoration project with volunteer support. The Stour Valley
Box Valley powerlines Long Melford, Stour Valley volunteers
It should also be noted that a recent appeal to parish councils and societies such as the Colne-Stour Countryside Association to give ongoing support for the work of the project team has been very generously supported by both parish councils and this Society.
The team has also reduced its costs to reflect the fall in contributions from the public purse since 2010. We have restructured the team twice in the last 5 years, reduced our operational costs by moving office and developing our volunteer support that has added up to a reduction in our core costs by around 35%. We have maintained a functioning staff team and a grant scheme, known as the Sustainable Development Fund, worth £30,000 to improve the environmental, social and economic aspects of the Dedham Vale.
The Stour Valley is a special area, recognised not just by those that live and work in it but by many from around the country. A couple of years ago we co-hosted the National Association for AONB’s conference and I was over whelmed by the number of delegates who knew of or had a connection with the area and relished the opportunity to come back and explore the area. Maybe that is in part due to the apparent omni-presence of images of the area in prints of world famous works by the great artists, Constable and Gainsborough, in almost every small hotel, guest house and restaurant in the country. Behind that recognition lies what the DEFRA minister responsible for AONBs described as a hidden economic powerhouse of protected landscapes. A recent publication – “So Much More Than The View” – commissioned by National Parks England and the National Association for AONBs revealed that the value of these special places to the national economy was over £20 billion annually and the core AONB teams cost society as little as 6p per person per year. Locally, the value of tourism in the Dedham Vale AONB is nearly £52 million per year, up nearly £7 million in four years, which demonstrates that our finest landscapes are worth so much more than a beautiful view and a desirable place to live.
The value of these landscapes includes the health benefits that they can provide. Numerous studies demonstrate that physical and mental health can be improved through access to natural spaces, and the Stour Valley is one of those places that can be enjoyed without damaging the very essence of what makes it so special. If, by encouraging people to enjoy the Stour Valley and thus improve their physical and mental health, this can help in reducing the £141 billion being spent on health in 2015/16 then surely it is a positive investment for the national good. These concepts can sometimes seem too vast to comprehend, so think instead of the individual who we know enjoys an invigorating walk in the country and feels better the next day! And if you add a meal at one of the many fine establishments in the area you are also doing your bit for the local economy.
Beyond some of these bigger national concepts what does the Project actually do? Firstly we should acknowledge the staff team is accountable to a Joint Advisory Committee made up of local councillors that provides a scrutiny function on expenditure and business planning.
Behind that lies the AONB Partnership, which comprises all JAC members plus representatives of environmental, business and agricultural interests. The Partnership receives reports from members as well as promoting policies to ensure that the Stour Valley’s natural beauty is maintained and enhanced. Threats to the valley are discussed and with members representing such a wide range of interests, these can be countered with great effect. There is a statutary management plan whose drafts are commented on by all members so that it can be finally endorsed and agreed by the whole Partnership.
Langham Dedham looking towards Manningtree
Canoes on the Stour Flatford overhead lines due to be undergrounded in 2016
The staff team works in a number of ways. Although it intervenes in the planning system, the Project understands that the countryside is an evolving entity. We work to ensure the development that does go ahead contributes to the natural beauty and special qualities of the area. It is not, however, a team that sits commenting on the plans of others but is out there seeking to influence land management and directly undertaking projects to enhance the conditions for wildlife and access opportunities to quietly enjoy the area.
We run teams of dedicated and amazing volunteers that undertake a variety of environmental project work. We also support parish councils and community groups throughout the valley to undertake projects that enhance their local area.
The staff team seeks to improve the understanding of what is an historic landscape, facilitating archaeological projects, often funded from external partners. We seek to communicate what is so special about the area through our website, a bi-annual newspaper and through a series of public events including the ever popular annual forum. We also work on transport related projects such as the Dedham Vale Hopper Bus and projects to help our wildlife. It is widely reported that 60% of our recorded wildlife is in decline and the AONB team has facilitated projects to help barn owls, otters, the native black poplar tree and bats, as well as undertaking habitat management of grasslands, planting trees and hedgerows and clearing invasive scrub from delicate habitats that help our less well known species of wildlife.
In the last three years we have hosted a River Stour Project Officer, funded by the Environment Agency and Anglian Water, to seek to improve the environmental factors along the whole of the River Stour catchment. This has been a hugely successful project with some really exciting improvements delivered. It has been a lesson to all of us in balancing the needs of the environment, flood defence, the navigation (where projects are on the main river) and landowners/managers. What has at times been a difficult balancing act has bought a wide range of interests together for the common good of the area. There are now areas in the upper and mid Stour where the sound of a babbling river can be heard again. This has contributed to the enhanced environmental qualities of the river and its potential for wildlife, but perhaps more importantly to many, the evocative sound of the river is once again adding to our enjoyment of being in the countryside.
I cannot contribute to an article for the magnificent Colne-Stour Countryside Association without making a reference to the AONB boundary review. As many reading this will know, the boundary of the nationally designated AONB is to the east of Bures. What some will also know is that it is an aspiration of the Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Partnership to seek an extension of that boundary westwards further up the Stour Valley. It may be that not everyone will share that aspiration but if the project is to proceed there will be many opportunities to put forward views and arguments to back your individual view.
That said, any review of the boundary can only be undertaken by Natural England, the Government’s advisor on the natural environment. In October 2015 the Secretary of State approved a project to extend the boundary of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales National Parks. The next timetabled boundary review to be looked at is the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB, which has been seeking to have its boundary reviewed for the last 20 years. Following that review, expected to take around 2 to 3 years, Surrey Hills AONB has been promised that it will be next in line. After that review it is not clear how Natural England will prioritise what I understand to be around 15 requests for boundary reviews and new designations for National Parts and AONBs, although Natural England are well aware of the aspirations in the Stour Valley.
To build on this Dedham Vale aspiration, the Project has commissioned a study from a nationally respected consultancy, using funds contributed by parish councils and societies such as the Colne Stour Countryside Association, to look at the factors that contribute to natural beauty and special qualities of the existing AONB and an area upstream of existing western boundary of the AONB. This will also help us to assess the merits or otherwise of development applications in the Stour Valley and may support further major grant applications.
So in answer to the original question I posed myself… what do you actually do? For a team of less than three and a half full time individuals my answer is… an awful lot! I think that the team makes the Stour Valley a better place for residents, businesses and visitors alike. The team’s contribution has its own value but also assists economic recovery through the support it gives to the important tourism sector. A recent study by Visit Suffolk, and yes I am acutely aware that half the Stour Valley is in Essex, noted that 75% of visitors cite the countryside as one of the reasons they have chosen to come to the area. Therefore I would suggest that a superb natural environment can help our rural economy and literally make us all healthier.
So enjoy our Stour Valley and help us to ensure that it remains the fantastic place that it is today. By reading this article and newsletter I would assume you have an interest in ensuring that the area does retain its special qualities, so I urge you to support local initiatives to further enhance the area and, if minded, to make a contribution to the Stour Valley Environment Fund, a Community Fund hosted by the Essex Community Foundation, to ensure that this beautiful place will remain for many years to come.
AONB Manager, Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project
Simon Amstutz has kept us up to date with the on-going progress of The Dedham Vale AONB and Stour Valley Project having given an in depth account of Managing a Masterpiece in the 2013 Magazine.