The AONB Designation Process: FAQs
It is Natural England's statutory responsibility to designate National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).
In July 2021 Natural England announced a new programme for landscape, working with stakeholders, communities and government. This includes determining four proposals for either new AONBs, or extensions to existing AONBs. One of these is to consider a proposal for a new Cheshire Sandstone Ridge AONB.
Q. What is an AONB?
A. An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is land protected by the Countryside and Rights of Way (CRoW) Act 2000. Section 82(1) of the CRoW Act defines an AONB as "an area which appears to Natural England to be of such outstanding natural beauty that it is desirable that the protective provisions of Part IV of the Act should apply to it for the purpose of conserving and enhancing the area's natural beauty." There are currently 34 AONBs in England.
Q. Who makes decisions with regard to new landscape designations?
A. Natural England has a discretionary power under S.82 of the CRoW Act, to designate Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Q. What is Natural England's remit?
A. Natural England is the government's adviser on the natural environment, with special responsibilities for creating National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and reviewing their boundaries. They also have a wide range of other responsibilities for the natural environment. More information about their work is at www.gov.uk/government/organisations/natural-england.
Q. Who makes the final decision?
A. It is Natural England's responsibility to decide whether to designate an area as AONB. Any decision will be made by Natural England's Board, having considered the evidence and the results of the statutory and public consultation. Any designation Order would not take effect however unless and until confirmed by the Secretary of State (Defra), after a legal Notice Period has been undertaken. The Secretary of State has the power call a Public Inquiry to assist in their decision making if so minded.
Q. How does Natural England decide which areas should be designated as AONBs?
A. In deciding whether to designate an AONB, or to vary an existing AONB boundary, Natural England must first consider whether the land has outstanding natural beauty and then whether designation is desirable for the purpose of conserving and enhancing the area's natural beauty. This decision requires Natural England to address three broad questions:
*Does the landscape have sufficient natural beauty to be considered outstanding?
*Is it desirable for the purpose set out above, to designate this landscape as AONB?
*Where should the boundary be drawn?
Q. How would a new Cheshire Sandstone Ridge AONB be managed?
A. The management of AONBs is usually the responsibility of a Joint Advisory Committee made up of the relevant local authorities. In addition a Partnership including a wide range of interested stakeholder organisations is also set up to help guide the management of the area.
The Joint Advisory Committee, working with an AONB Partnership leads on the preparation, monitoring and review of the AONB Management Plan on behalf of its constituent local authorities. The AONB Partnership also plays a leading role in developing an image and sense of identity for the AONB and in developing and supporting initiatives that implement the AONB Management Plan policies. The work of an AONB Partnership is achieved through an AONB Management Unit taking forward a range of initiatives that promote the special character of the area, establish partnerships, secure funding, ensure implementation and monitor effectiveness.
In recognition that AONBs are nationally important landscapes, 75% of the Unit's core costs are funded by central government through DEFRA with 25% of core costs from the local authorities with land in the AONB, to reflect their statutory responsibilities towards the AONB.
Q. What are the next steps and expected timescales?
A. Natural England will appoint consultants experienced in this area of work who are assisting in evidence gathering with local people and stakeholders prior to undertaking the technical assessment of natural beauty and determining the desirability of designating a new Cheshire Sandstone Ridge AONB to include areas assessed as having outstanding natural beauty.
The following is a summary of the practical steps which will be taken.
*Call for evidence on Natural Beauty of the Area of Search from Key Stakeholders.
*Review of available evidence relevant to the assessment of natural beauty and technical assessment of natural beauty in the field.
*Awareness raising workshops and webinars for the public and key stakeholder organisations.
*Call for review of draft Candidate Area via an online engagement platform and a digital app, as well as via workshops.
*Preparation of recommended Candidate Area and supporting justification.
*Assessment of desirability to designate.
*Assessment to define a proposed boundary.
*NE approval and if yes, approval to undertake the statutory and public consultation.
*Preparation of documentation for and subsequent undertaking of the statutory consultation.
*Review responses to the statutory consultation prior to NE Board approval of the assessments of whether Natural England should designate a new Cheshire Sandstone Ridge AONB and if yes, a draft Order designating a new AONB and approval to proceed to a formal period of Notice.
*Formal period of Notice and analysis of responses.
*Order made and submitted to the Secretary of State (Defra) designating a new Cheshire Sandstone Ridge AONB.
Q. How will local people be able to engage?
A. Natural England will work collaboratively with local partners to ensure there are good engagement opportunities throughout the process. This could include opportunities to contribute to evidence gathering as well as through informal consultation.
The Designation Process in more detail
Q. How does Natural England go about fulfilling this statutory responsibility?
A. Natural England has produced a guidance document which sets out how we evaluate natural
beauty as well as the desirability of designation and the criteria we use to identify detailed
Q. How is the assessment of Natural Beauty undertaken?
A. Once an area has been selected for consideration for designation, it will be considered in
detail, using the guidance referred to above. This guidance explains how Natural England
normally expects to apply the statutory designation criteria in practice when assessing
landscapes for designation.
Natural beauty is not exhaustively defined in the legislation. It is also a very subjective
characteristic of a landscape and ultimately involves a value judgment. In deciding whether an
area has natural beauty, Natural England must therefore make a judgment as to whether
people are likely to perceive a landscape as having sufficient natural beauty.
In order to make these judgments (some of which are subjective) in a transparent and
consistent way, the Guidance sets out the criteria that Natural England uses. These include
landscape and scenic quality, relative wildness, relative tranquillity and contributions made to
natural beauty by natural and cultural heritage features and associations.
Q. How does Natural England decide whether it is desirable to designate land as an
A. It is an important principle in designation, that just because an area is assessed as meeting
the natural beauty criterion, it does not mean that it will necessarily be designated. Natural
England must also deem it to be desirable to designate it for the purpose of conserving and
enhancing its natural beauty.
Factors that are considered with regard to the 'desirability' of designation (for any area which
satisfies the AONB technical 'natural Beauty' criterion include:
Is there an area which satisfies AONB technical 'natural Beauty' criterion?
Is the area of such significance that the AONB purpose should apply to it?
What are the issues affecting the area's special qualities and understanding and enjoyment and
what effect would designation have on these issues?
Can AONB purposes be best pursued through the management mechanisms, powers and duties
which come with National Park or AONB designation?
Are there other relevant factors which tend to suggest whether it is or is not desirable to
designate the area?
The more closely that any issue raised relates to the statutory purpose (the conservation and
enhancement of natural beauty), then the greater its relevance and importance.
Q. How does Natural England identify boundaries for areas that are assessed as being
desirable to designate as AONB?
A. If Natural England decides that an area has sufficient natural beauty and that it is desirable
to designate an area, the last step prior to statutory consultation is to identify a detailed
boundary. Natural England uses well-established boundary making principles in defining a
suitable boundary. It is important to note that landscape and scenic quality rarely change
suddenly and where there is an area of transition in landscape or scenic quality, a boundary
will be drawn towards the high quality end of the area of transition, to include areas of high
quality land and exclude areas of lesser quality. In other words, the boundary should be drawn
Q. Who are the statutory consultees?
A. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act requires Natural England to undertake a statutory
Local Authority consultation of all county, unitary, district and borough councils affected by the
proposals prior to reaching a final decision, but in practice Natural England will open this
consultation to anyone with an interest in the project, including the public.
The Implications of Designation
Q. What will change as a result of designation as an AONB?
A. The provisions of the Countryside & Rights of Way Act will immediately apply i.e.:
S84 (4) specifically provides for a local authority whose area consists of or includes the whole
or any part of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty to have the power to take all such action
as appears to them expedient for the accomplishment of the purpose of conserving and
enhancing the natural beauty of the area.
S85(1) confers a General Duty to have regard to the purpose of AONB designation as follows:
"In exercising or performing any functions in relation to, or so as to affect, land in an area of
outstanding natural beauty, a relevant authority shall have regard to the purpose of conserving
and enhancing the natural beauty of the area of outstanding natural beauty."
S85(2) defines 'relevant authorities' for these purposes as encompassing any Minister of the
Crown, any public body, any statutory undertaker and any person holding public office.
S89 (2) places a duty on relevant local authorities to prepare and publish a plan which
formulates their policy for the management of the AONB and for the carrying out of their
functions in relation to it with a further duty to review the plan at "intervals of not more than
five years". An AONB Management Plan sets out the policy for the management of an AONB and
includes an action plan for carrying out activity in support of the purpose of designation. The
Management Plan plays an important role in supporting and co-ordinating the action of the
organisations that make up the AONB Partnership, including setting the work programme of
the AONB team.
Q. What are the wider implications if designation goes ahead?
A. Any areas that become a part of a Cheshire Sandstone Ridge AONB would have the benefit of
the national status that designation brings and the statutory protection this provides. They will
be fully reflected in future AONB Management Plans and benefit from the resources and skills
of the AONB Management Unit.
There are no changes to access rights over and above those that already exist.
Q. How will AONB designation affect planning?
A. All planning decisions will continue to be made by the existing local planning authorities, in
line with the National Planning Policy Framework which provides the highest level of planning
protection for AONBs, together with any specific local development plan policies.
In an AONB, great weight should be given to conserving and enhancing landscape and scenic
beauty. The scale and extent of development would be likely to be limited and planning
permission refused for major development unless in exceptional circumstances where it is in
the public interest. Some Permitted Development Rights are however withdrawn in AONBs,
requiring affected proposals to be subject to the full planning application process.
Q. How will designation affect landowners and other land managers?
A. Ownership of land remains unchanged within an AONB, there are no changes to public
access rights and there is no restriction on how land can be farmed. Landowners and manager
may be able to benefit from grant schemes targeted at designated landscapes such as Defra's
current Farming in Protected Landscapes Scheme.
Q. How will designation affect nature conservation?
A. The natural beauty of an AONB encompasses both its natural and cultural heritage features.
Future management of the area will subsequently seek to ensure that important wildlife and
habitats that are intrinsic to its natural beauty, are conserved and enhanced. The integrated
management approach taken by an AONB Partnership will also assist with the management of
any potential conflicts which may arise between wildlife and recreation.