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Looking after Britain's landscapes
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice magazine, 2007
Our landscapes are important – official! Admittedly, you didn't see that headline in the national newspapers earlier this year. The fact that the British government started this March to implement the European Landscape Convention didn't precisely sweep all the other news off the front pages. But nevertheless, this is a development which those people in the know have warmly welcomed. And, just perhaps, it could put an extra spring in your step next time you take a walk round your own neighbourhood.
For a change, this is something which reaches our shores not from the European Union but from the Council of Europe, the much broader international body set up after the war which links all parts of our continent, from Russia to Iceland. The landscape convention was agreed back in 2000, which means that it's taken the UK much longer than many other countries to get round to endorsing it. Better late than never, say the experts.
Like most international treaties, the landscape convention is written in a slightly offputting way. But the message, boiled down, comes to this: local landscapes, whether they are ordinary or outstanding, urban or rural, are important to us all. Landscape is about the relationship between people and place, the way human activity has interacted with the natural world.
What's being said, in other words, is that there's more to landscape than just a pretty country view. The reason why there's a rich diversity of landscapes in Britain, each with their own feel and sense of place, is because of the way human activity has shaped the underlying natural features in so many different ways – from the Georgian terraces in a city like Bath to the imposing brick-built cotton mills of Lancashire, or from the distinctive drystone walls of Swaledale to the apple orchards of Herefordshire.
It's vital, the European convention goes on to say, that it's not just governments who are engaged in the work of looking after our landscapes: “The public is accordingly encouraged to take an active part in landscape management and planning, and to feel it has responsibility for what happens to the landscape… Landscape is the concern of all,” it says. And, although there's no external penalties for countries who don't live up to high standards of the convention, the British government has pointed out that it will get scrutinised in what it does – by the British people.
If every landscape's special in its own way, the question perhaps is what is particularly special about different parts of the country. In England, Natural England (formerly the Countryside Agency) has tried to begin to answer the question, by undertaking what's called a landscape character assessment exercise. The end result is a colourful map which divides the country into 159 different character areas, each with their own attributes.
The Chilterns, for example, are one such area, distinctive among other things according to Natural England because of the extensive areas of beech woodland, the small fields, and the dense networks of ancient hedges and old green lanes. Full details of each area, from area 1 (North Northumberland Coastal Plain) to 159 (reserved for the little island of Lundy ) can be found on Natural England's website. It can be interesting to look at the assessment for your own area and see whether you agree.
Appreciating and assessing the landscape isn't just something for the professionals. As the European Landscape Convention suggests, the idea of looking more closely at local landscapes is now catching on at community level in Britain – and the word back from those people who've been already got involved in local landscape assessment is that this can be a rewarding and valuable way of helping strengthen the quality of life and sense of community cohesion in local neighbourhoods. It's a tool, Natural England says, for identifying the features that give a locality its sense of place and pinpointing what makes if different from neighbouring areas.
According to the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), over 120 parish councils and local heritage groups are actively undertaking projects on their local landscapes. Typically, these include public workshops and community mapping exercises which end up with the production of what's called a Community Landscape Character Statement – something that sets out to record what's distinctive about the landscape surrounding a settlement and the aspirations for the landscape of the people who live there. This is often included as part of a broader Village Design Statement. Documents like these – even those produced on a voluntary basis – can form part of the formal supplementary planning guidance to be consulted when planning decisions are taken.
The CPRE itself has recently been running an Unlocking the Landscape initiative, to encourage this sort of local activity. The organisation talks of ‘a spreading blandness and loss of character' afflicting England 's small towns and countryside, and says it wants to help communities celebrate what's different about their areas. It lists four aims for its campaigning work: to show people why landscape character matters, to raise awareness about the loss of landscape character, to understand more about why the loss is happening, and to prevent further loss so that local distinctiveness can be enhanced.
Another organisation, run on an informal basis to bring together professional practitioners with enthusiastic amateurs, is the Landscape Character Network. The LCN produces a regular newsletter (available free from its website) and arranges occasional workshops and events. LCN maintains a comprehensive database of existing local, regional and national character assessment plans, with contact details, making this an easy way to find out if any community or area near your own has previous experience in undertaking this sort of work.
Burwardsley maps its landscape
The village of Burwardsley lies a few miles south-east of Chester, in the attractive countryside of the Cheshire Sandstone Ridge. It's a small community, with less than two hundred residents, but it still manages to have a shop and post office, a local pub and an active village institute. And, thanks to the hard work of a committed group of villagers, it's now got its own landscape character assessment too.
Alison Swift, the clerk of Burwardsley's parish council, was one of the volunteers involved in the work. “It made us look at our village very closely and actually take note of what we were seeing,” she says. “When you see things every day, you tend to take them for granted.”
The project brought together twenty or so local people, with a core group of about eight or ten volunteers who worked closely on the project. It took time – according to Alison Swift, about two years in total – with meetings held every few months to assess progress. “There was a lot of detailed work involved,” she says. The whole parish was divided up in different areas, she explains, and in between the meetings smaller groups went out to walk the ground and to photograph what they saw.
Helpfully, the group had in George Bramall, a retired architect with a strong interest in environmental and landscape matters, a strong driving force behind the whole project. Sadly George died just as the project was coming to an end, and the finished Burwardsley Village Design and Parish Landscape Statement has now been dedicated to his memory.
The group also had professional help from the Cheshire Landscape Trust, for whom Burwardsley was one of two innovative pilot projects, and from a supportive academic from Salford University . Alison Swift feels their input was helpful: “They facilitated it. We were all given forms with boxes to fill in, and with adjectives to choose to describe particular landscapes. I think this sort of thing does need some expert leadership,” she says.
The end result was a comprehensive report, which divides the parish into twelve areas, made up of five distinctive landscape types. There's the village, for example, comprising the two neighbouring settlements of Higher and Lower Burwardsley . Then there's the valley areas, the wooded escarpment, and what the group chose to describe as ‘lower scarp farmland' and ‘upper scarp farmland'.
The report was turned into an attractive illustrated book, with a copy given to each one of the eighty or so households in the parish. There was a launch party, too, at the village institute to celebrate the end of the hard work. But just as important, the landscape assessment has continued to prove its worth since then. The villagers were the first in Britain to get their work formally accepted by their local authority, Chester City , as Supplementary Planning Guidance.
“I'm always quoting from it when we're considering planning applications,” Alison Swift says. She describes one recent case, where bright external lights had been put up in one of the buildings in the village. “We were able to say: page so-and-so of the landscape assessment covers this, it says that we want to discourage light pollution”.
Ultimately, a landscape study like this is there to be used as a tool. “We want to preserve the landscape, that's what it comes down to. When you live in a particularly attractive area, it's in everybody's interests to want to preserve it,” Alison Swift says.
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