Origins and management
Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) were brought into being by the same legislation as National Parks - the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949. They are arguably the nearest local communities can get to participation in planning to maintain a sense of place.

AONBs are fine landscapes, of great variety in character and extent. The criteria for designation is their outstanding natural beauty. Many AONBs also fulfil a recreational role but, unlike national parks, this is not a designation criteria.

The Countryside Agency and the Countryside Council for Wales are responsible for designating AONBs and advising Government on policies for their protection.

The administration of planning and development control in AONBs is the responsibility of those local authorities within whose boundaries they fall.

The Government endorses the practice by the constituent local authorities of setting up joint advisory committees to bring together local authorities and amenity groups, farming and other interests to encourage a co-ordinated approach to the management of AONBs.

Larger and more complex AONBs can apply to the Secretary of State to establish independent Conservation Boards under s86 of the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000.

Purpose of AONBs
The primary purpose of an AONB designation is based on aesthetic criteria, but heritage and cultural considerations feature highly in the aesthetic judgements required for designation. This means that they have a strong sense of place emanating from physical remains of former settlement and a deep artistic heritage. Towards the end of the last century the sense of place has been expressed in policies to promote recreational, wildlife, historical and educational objectives. The first round of management plans, produced between 2000 and 2004, were concerned with protecting and enhancing the historic environment in AONBs . These plans, most of which will come up for review within the next few years, vary considerably in the level of detail and commitment to organise projects at an operational level. This variation is partly a reflection of financial constraints.

Working arrangements
In 2000 the Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act for England and Wales confirmed that National Parks and AONB landscapes have the same status. In addition, Part IV of the Act introduced some important provisions that included:

  • the creation of conservation boards for selected AONBs by means of an government order;
  • the preparation and publication of a Management Plan for every AONB, and its periodic review;
  • placing a duty on public bodies to have regard to the need to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the AONB when carrying out their duties.

The CROW Act requires all public bodies to consider the interests of AONBs when developing their own policies.This is being achieved by links between AONBs and a range of public bodies, including heritage agencies.

Terms of reference
'Natural Beauty' is not just an aesthetic concept, and 'Landscape' means more than just 'scenery'. The statutory definition of 'Natural Beauty' includes flora, fauna and geological and physiographic features. The natural beauty of AONBs is partly due to nature, and is partly the product of many centuries of human modification of 'natural' features. Landscape encompasses everything - 'natural' and human - that makes an area distinctive: geology, climate, soil, plants, animals, communities, archaeology, buildings, the people who live in it, past and present, and the perceptions of those who visit it.

AONBs are human-made, cultural landscapes. They are home to thousands of people and are places of recreation for many thousands more. Most of the land in AONBs is privately owned, and most is managed to provide a livelihood for those who work it. AONBs are multi-use landscapes, although farming is the predominant land use in the majority of them. The management of AONBs involves working with and through many different groups and organisations - the AONB partners.

AONBs are living landscapes, both by virtue of the species and habitats within them, and because their special qualities can only be maintained by continuing human activity.Very little in the British landscape can be described as 'natural', being the result of the combined effects of many centuries of human influence to create the landscape of today.They cannot be frozen in time, they may and will change. What is important is to understand what makes them special, then to develop a vision of how they can be sustained into the future. This will mean encouraging activities which conserve and enhance the special character of the AONB, and minimising activities which threaten this special character. That is what AONB management and management planning is all about.

As a reminder that we can all make up a list of aesthetic criteria to promote a particular tract of treasured countryside, we only have to study the publicity materials of those who wish to market their own patch. The following branding statement has been produced by the University of Sussex as one of its on-line 'communications postcards'.
  • Rolling Sussex downland, hedgerows, fleecy clouds, fresh air, soaring skylarks, wooded valleys, morning dew, a pub, a dog barking in the distance, a sudden shower, a sense of freedom, vast blue sky, well-equipped walkers, a rainbow, warm summer breezes, swifts and swallows swooping, the perfect picnic spot, a flock of sheep, breathless climb, sunset over high chalk downland, cycle trails, a kestrel dropping like a stone, views as far as the eye can see, a church, slight chill in the evening air, a pint, an Iron Age hill fort, rabbits scurrying, rare orchids. Butterflies, trees swaying, wild flowers, riders on horses, buzzards, picture-postcard villages, vapour trails, lambs bleating, a roll in the hay.

This raises questions about the perception of beauty, which for most people is in the eye of the beholder when memories are triggered by words and pictures. Looking at, and listening to, the countryside we are encompassed by the experience of beauty and live for a moment in the midst of our own aesthetic universe. This means that beauty be observed as a unity, and that for the brief duration the cognition of the observed object must completely fill the spectator's cosmos.

Trading natural beauty
A society must become technolgical, urban and crowded before a need for natural beauty makes intellectual and economic sense. In the latter context, tourism has always had a firm economic handle on nature and although less utilitarian arguments exist, in actual fact money is the most important reason for preserving nature in most cultures. Exporters of natural beauty latch on to the attractions of AONBs to extol the pleasures of visiting their patch and partaking in their services, and importers exploit the eagerness of armchair enthusiasts to consume movies, television specials, magazines and books, and to support nature philanthropy. Other motives, some would say better or higher ones, exist for protecting natural beauty and the management plans of AONBs usually reflect the balancing act between protecting a fragile resource for its intrinsic value, and supporting the local economy.

Governmental view
In June 2000, the Government made this statement about protection of landscape in AONBs:

"The Government accepts the view put by the then Countryside Commission in section 4 of their publication Protecting our finest landscapes: advice to Government (1998), that the landscape qualities of National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) are equivalent. Conserving and enhancing the beauty of the landscape are objectives for both types of designation.
The Government therefore believes that the protection given to both types of area by the land use planning system should also be equivalent.

The Government's planning policies for AONBs are set out in Planning Policy Guidance Note (PPG) 7: The Countryside – Environmental Quality and Economic and Social Development (Revised February 1997). PPG7 states that "The Government regards National Park Designation as conferring the highest status of protection as far as landscape and scenic beauty are concerned." This reflects the National Park Authorities' primary objective to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Parks. It does not mean that the landscape beauty of AONBs is in any way inferior to that of National Parks. AONBS should therefore share the highest status of protection in relation to landscape and scenic beauty.
In relation to major projects, it is the Government's view that, henceforth, the assessment required in paragraph 4.5 of PPG7 in National Parks should also apply in to proposals for major development in AONBs. Such proposals should be demonstrated to be in the public interest before being allowed to proceed.
Consideration of applications should therefore normally include an assessment of:

- the need for the development, in terms of national considerations, and the impact of permitting it or refusing it on the local economy;
- the cost of and scope for developing elsewhere outside the area or meeting the need for it in some other way;
- any detrimental effect on the environment and the landscape, and the extent to which that should be moderated.

The guidance in the preceding paragraph therefore replaces the last two sentences of paragraph 4.8 of PPG7."