Staff of the Department of Landscape in the University of Sheffield, as consultants to the Countryside Council for Wales, have suggested the following modern meaning for “natural beauty”:

“Natural beauty” relates, first and foremost, to unspoiled rural areas free from the effects of urbanisation and industrialisation. It does not apply only to landscape where nature may appear to dominate - arguably there are no ‘natural’ landscapes in the British Isles - but includes rural landscapes which have been shaped by human activities, including, for example farmland, fields and field boundaries, designed parkland, small settlements, larger villages and small towns, provided that they are integral to, and in keeping with, the character of the ‘landscape’.

“Natural beauty” is a broad concept that is concerned with landscape and the way this is perceived by people, both visually, in terms of aesthetic aspects like colour, form, texture and pattern, and by other senses, and also through our perceptions and preferences, which are affected by people’s cultural backgrounds and interests. “Natural beauty” therefore embraces all of these components and aspects of landscape. “Natural Beauty” is related to landscape character, in that it will find expression in areas of landscape which have a degree of unity and distinctiveness in character and a strong sense of place. Landscape character is, however, found everywhere whereas “natural beauty” is found in valued landscapes.

The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act of 2006 modified the criteria for drawing up boundaries of National Parks as follows:-

Criteria for designating National Parks

(1) In section 5 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 (c. 97) (criteria for designating National Parks), after subsection (2) insert—
“(2A) Natural England may—
(a) when applying subsection (2)(a) in relation to an area, take into account its wildlife and cultural heritage, and
(b) when applying subsection (2)(b) in relation to that area, take into account the extent to which it is possible to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of its special qualities by the public.”

Natural beauty in the countryside

The fact that an area in England or Wales consists of or includes—
(a) land used for agriculture or woodlands,
(b) land used as a park, or
(c) any other area whose flora, fauna or physiographical features are partly the product of human intervention in the landscape,
does not prevent it from being treated, for the purposes of any enactment (whenever passed), as being an area of natural beauty (or of outstanding natural beauty).

This new legislation was in response to a legal challenge in late 2005 concerning the drawing up of the boundary of the New Forest National Park. The judge ruled that some land included in the Park should be excluded, while at the same time he introduced a new definition of natural beauty into the designation criteria for national parks which implied that land clearly shaped by man cannot be considered for inclusion.

This finding (subsequently termed the ‘Meyrick judgments’) was clearly at odds with the way that the law has been interpreted over the past 50 years which has seen 11 National Parks and 40 AONBs established. This point was accepted by all the main parties in the House of Commons when it debated the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act early in 2006. When this act became law in March 2006 it contained two sections which clarified the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act and the approach to defining 'natural beauty' in the designation of National Parks.

However, in February 2007 the Court of Appeal rejected the objections of the Department of Environment and Rural Affairs ( DEFRA) to the Meyrick judgments. DEFRA is still considering the full implications of all this and whether the Public Inquiry into the establishment of the South Downs National Park needs to be reopened.