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Do National Scenic Areas have a future?

The countryside of Scotland is a rich tapestry of mountain and glen, castle and village, wood, stream and bog. But how do we decide what is important, what is more beautiful than the rest, or is worthy of protection?

These notes look at these issues, focusing on the evaluation of landscape.


Most planning promoted maps sought to apply quality assessment to land form, despite attendant difficulties of subjectivity ( even where 'experts' are used) and boundary delineation (hills and valleys overlap!). Currently promoted methodology of Landscape Character Assessment eliminates 'elitist' priority objectives and is not tied to any particular boundary definitions.

Landscape Character Analysis

1. Methodology of Landscape Character Assessment

Two different processes should be clearly distinguished. Both the Countryside Agency (Countryside Commission) in England and Scottish Natural Heritage have surveyed their areas using a methodology originally devised by Land Use Consultants to identify consistent and recognisable Landscape Types (often called Landscape Character Areas). The second process has been to associate these with an ecological classification to provide Character Zones (Natural Heritage Zones in Scotland) whose objective is to guide the locational interpretation of environmental policies and plans.

My objective here is only to describe the general process employed in identifying landscape zones.

Landscape classification is the process of dividing the landscape into types or areas of distinct, recognisable and common character and mapping their distribution. The process has three stages: desk survey; analysis; and confirmatory field survey.

In the first stage the objective is to map Landform (eg topography), Land cover (eg woodland) and Landscape elements (eg pylons). In each case the principal requirement is that whatever is mapped should be visible.

The analysis looks at the distribution of these elements, visual envelopes and views, the ecological and geological structure of the land and the historical pattern of landscape development (the cultural component). 'Experts' are inevitably involved at this stage and impose elements of both rationalisation and subjectivity.

The field survey is needed to: confirm the mapping process on the ground; to map features for which there is no desk information (eg stone walls); and to provide 'objective' descriptions of the land (eg rolling hills).

2. The County Clare Pilot Project

We shall be using the example of a proposed landscape survey of County Clare in Ireland and seeking to define:

· the objectives of such a survey

· the methods we might employ

· how we might use the results

Even though cultural heritage and landscape have become important aspects of tourism growth, Ireland has no system of recognising 'more valuable' landscapes. The objective of the survey is therefore to examine existing information about County Clare and to devise a methodology that could be applied across the rest of Ireland.

Much information about the land is already held in GIS form by the Heritage Council (and other Government Depts etc). What is missing? And how does this relate to 'quality'? Although topography, habitats etc are held as spatial and data units, there may be a need to reassemble these to provide 'landscape unit' boundaries and data. Are community and historical characteristics also relevant? It may be possible to build in weightings to these data sets to devise a quality assessment, but who should quantify the weighting and at what value? Would a field survey be needed? Are there other ways of approaching the problem.

Let us assume the results are transferrable across Ireland. Do we persuade the Government to introduce a new Designation, amalgamate with other data sets to create a zoning system, or just use them as a focus of publicity? Are extra planning powers or additional funding needed to preserve their character and quality?

NSA in Scotland

The debate on the relevance of National Scenic Areas to Scotland is set within the context that the whole landscape of Scotland is often perceived as scenic. Why should 12% be thought better than the rest? The current issues are perhaps that:

  • the arrival of 'landscape character areas' has provided an easier to use, consistent and more understandable approach to landscape design for foresters, land managers and planners alike.
  • the distinction of scenic without its attendant social and ecological links is thought to be invalid in a climate of biodiversity and an integrated SNH (are Natural Heritage Areas a more appropriate planning and management unit)
  • the subjectivity implied in their initial identification is difficult to test or quantify
  • the limited powers available to conserve NSA have constrained their impact on the professional planner, land manager etc.

I shall use the example of the three NSA in Dumfries and Galloway to discuss these background issues and to explore the ways forward.

Solway National Scenic Areas(The Fleet Valley, East Stewartry Coast and the Nith Estuary)

"NSA designation accepts that some landscapes will change but aims to ensure that this change is positive and is handled sensitively."

The landscape character assessment, pioneered in Dumfries and Galloway, has now found a preeminent role in setting policy and management guidance for landscape. Most Local Authorities, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Executive (PAN 60) ,however, recognise the importance of National Scenic Areas as representing the primary landscape resource for which Scotland is renown and for which specific options are required.

The pilot study of the Solway NSA's has assisted in understanding how landscape character areas as well as other conservation designations and land management practices and programmes can be focused in NSA, and may assist in providing models that are relevant to National Parks, Natural Heritage Areas and other wild areas.

Some criticism has been voiced with regard to NSA selection criteria and location, and with regard to the relevance and efficacy of current planning and agricultural and forestry management measures. The choice, inter alia, of the NSAs in Dumfries and Galloway is apposite both because of the progress on its biodiversity and other management programmes and because of the special character of its NSAs.

To provide confidence in and public recognition and comprehension of NSA it will be important to explore their characteristics, the issues that affect them and the existing and potential processes of decision and management.

What are the key issues the Project must address?

1. Funding

Funding is not just an issue of taking appropriate opportunities under existing regulations (forestry grants, agri-environment schemes, historic buildings etc) or of focusing eligible funding to NSA's (Dumfries and Galloway Council already provide enhanced amenity planting grants in the three NSA) -although much more could be achieved this way- but is also a matter of identifying other opportunities ( Lottery Funds, European Protected Area Programme, Scottish Tourist Board, local sources) in building partnerships for research, presentation and publicity.

It may, for example, be possible to take advantage of the Crown Estates 'Scottish Coastal Community project Scheme', or to develop a 'National Scenic Areas Week' in partnership with STB and Scottish Enterprise.

2. Control and Management

It is unlikely that any new measures will be available or introduced to implement management objectives for NSA. There are possibilities that the Scottish Executive could extend the referral mechanisms already in place for NSA but the first lesson of the Dumfriesshire area is that the issues that are significant across Scotland must be identified across a wider range of scenic character than is encompassed through the pilot project.

NSA management will primarily be implemented through other statutory and non statutory strategies, from those of Structure and Local Plans to forestry strategies and LBAP and Countryside Premium Scheme (or its replacement) priorities and programmes. A key objective for Dumfries and Galloway must therefore be to be fully transparent and convincing in its justification of management proposals.

A first step will almost certainly be to explore the elements and limitiations of objectivity in defining scenic quality for NSA. Several examples now exist elsewhere (Netherlands, Ireland) that could be considered. Some measure of understanding will also clearly be achieved from the Landscape Character Assessment already in place.

3. Design

Good design advice is already available to local authorities and most rural agencies, usually in-house.

What further design assistance might be needed in our NSA. Whilst design standards are already well framed in terms of vernacular architecture, forestry, farm conservation, road margins and many others, is there a need for design expectations in NSA to be defined and expressed across these disciplines for their specific scenic circumstances, and also perhaps for a wider audience.

There may be something to be gained from exploring the potential of GIS to model futures. Examples range from river catchment management in the Nile Delta to the work proceding at the Countryside Commission for Wales which are designed to allow others in the public domain to test impact and the robustness of the land and landscape.

4. Community Involvement

The development of new skills and experience in community participation in land resource management (National Parks and others) and the non-statutory nature of NSA management plans provide the opportunity to explore a wider range of techniques than are currently employed in Scotland.

The academic analysis and training provided, for example, by the University of Wales at Aberystwyth must be thought to offer a sound basis for the approaches that can be adopted.

The three essentials that must be put in place are an institutional and profesional framework for participation, participation in assessment and evaluation, and participation in management and design.

Much of the institutional and professional framework is already in place or is viewed with sympathy. However that which exists must be built on by examining the methods of participation that will be required, easing their implementation and ensuring the funding that may be needed.

Many methods of early participation have been tried, experimented or implemented. The 'Quality of Life' experiment in Dunbartonshire was well praised in its day, for example. The keys for the NSA lie perhaps in exploring perceptions, involving a wide spectrum of the community (the young for example), and in retaining interest throughout the programme (for example by newsletter or interactive web sites). A cost implication is apparent but would be less burdensome if identified early and shared appropriately.

The longer term needs of participation require not only the mechanisms of interaction but the development of the right tools, methods and methodologies that can offer easy access to the debate, simple but accurate interactivity and a clear respect for and rewarding participatory channel for all those involved. I am sure, for example, that the Crichton Campus, Barony or Dumfries College could quickly develop effective local courses in design and philosophy for landowners, farmers and others building on their existing expertise.

The Council for Europe 'European Landscape Convention' was opened for signature at the end of October 2000 and calls on member states to:

a. to recognise landscapes in law as an essential component of people's surroundings, an expression of the diversity of their shared cultural and natural heritage, and a foundation of their identity;

b. to establish and implement landscape policies aimed at landscape protection, management and planning through the adoption of the specific measures set out in Article 6;

c. to establish procedures for the participation of the general public, local and regional authorities, and other parties with an interest in the definition and implementation of the landscape policies mentioned in paragraph b above;

d. to integrate landscape into its regional and town planning policies and in its cultural, environmental, agricultural, social and economic policies, as well as in any other policies with possible direct or indirect impact on landscape.

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