The agreement between the Scottish National Party and the Scottish Green Party includes a commitment to designate at least one new National Park in Scotland during the life of the present parliament. To this end, a consultation process began in summer 2022 with an ‘ideas challenge’1. This has been followed up with a more conventional consultation on the role and approach to National Parks, and how nominations for new National Parks could be evaluated2. My response to the Part One questions (on role and approach) are set out in this post, for the record. I didn’t answer the questions on the nomination process, since these were broadly as one might expect plus I felt the level of detail rather implied that the role and approach issues had already been settled.
The role and purpose of National Parks is pretty contested territory, as illustrated by the diverse responses to the ideas challenge. Scotland was late to the party, with two National Parks designated soon after the millennium – England and Wales have had parks since the 1950s and the USA, at the other extreme, has had parks for over a century. Despite the shared name, these can be very different beasts. The ‘scene-setting’ paper from NatureScot helpfully includes an annex3 listing the internationally recognised IUCN classification showing that Britain’s parks are seen as ‘protected landscapes’ (Category 5), with a mix of private and public ownership and incorporating whole human communities. Multiple (not necessarily compatible) objectives are thus unavoidable, and the National Park Board becomes an arena in which the interaction of numerous stakeholders is played out.
I felt the latest consultation muddies these waters even more, introducing ideas which don’t seem compatible with the basis on which Scotland’s two parks are operating. The next stages of the process promise to be interesting. Constructive tension, anyone?
Section 1 – The Role of Scotland’s National Parks
This section examines the role of National Parks in Scotland and sets out proposals for refreshing the approach to National Parks.
At present, Scotland’s two National Parks cover 7.2% of its land area Establishing more National Parks will increase this total, bringing Scotland more in line with others parts of the UK (for comparison, the 10 English National Parks cover 9.3% of England and the 3 Welsh National Parks cover 19.9.% of Wales). How do we enable the National Park designation to deliver more for each of these areas and Scotland as a whole?
- The role of National Parks
- The statutory Aims of National Parks
- Powers and Functions of National Park Authorities
- Diversity in approach
2. The Role of National Parks (Q1-4)
Scotland has ambitious targets and priorities to meet the challenges we face in tackling the climate and nature emergencies and we need to transform what we do, and how we do it, if we are to deliver them. Scottish Ministers wish to see Scotland’s National Parks as places that will actively demonstrate nature recovery and the transformational change needed in our approach to land-use, providing leadership and showcasing a just transition to net zero in Scotland.
The establishment of one or more additional National Parks is therefore not only a goal in its own right, but must be seen in the context of a range of connected Scottish Government strategies and policies including:
- National Strategy for Economic Transformation – including its ambition “to demonstrate global leadership to deliver a just transition to net zero nature positive economy and rebuilding natural capital”.
- The Environment Strategy 2020 with its outcome that ‘Scotland’s nature is protected and restored with flourishing biodiversity and clean and healthy air, water, seas and soils’.
- Delivery of vision and outcomes of the Scottish Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, to protect nature by 2030 and restore it by 2045 including:
- Preventing any further species extinction and halting declines by 2030 and making significant progress in restoring the natural environment by 2045.
- 30×30 – securing by 2030 that at least 30% of Scotland’s land and seas are managed for nature.
- Nature Networks – ensuring every Local Authority area will have a nature network of locally driven projects to improve ecological connectivity.
- Establishing a world leading suite of highly protected marine areas
- Commitment to meeting carbon reduction targets and adapting to climate change through implementation of the Climate Change Action Plan by developing “thriving rural economies based around woodland creation, peatland restoration and biodiversity as well as sustainable tourism, food and drink and energy”;
- Delivery of Scotland’s national planning framework, land-use strategy and national marine plan, including the development of regional land-use partnerships and regional marine plans;
- The development of new legislative proposals for land reform including the introduction of a public interest test for transfers of large-scale landholdings;
- Implementation of Scotland’s vision for Responsible Tourism for a Sustainable Future in Scotland Outlook 2030 and its visitor management strategy; and the
- Refresh of Our Place in Time – Scotland’s strategy for the historic environment.
Scotland’s National Parks currently play a number of key roles that support many of these strategies and plans through demonstration and good practice. In particular:
- they help protect some of the very best of Scotland’s nature, landscapes and heritage;
- they are at the forefront of landscape-scale action for nature restoration;
- they are an important part of Scotland’s visitor offer and provide a range of outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation and enjoyment of nature;
- they are an important mechanism for land-use planning and the piloting of regional land-use partnerships; and
- they provide exemplars of community engagement and sustainable development, including natural capital approaches.
To build on this existing work and add greater emphasis to it, National Parks could be given a new overarching purpose “to lead nature recovery and a just transition to net zero”. Key elements of leadership and action required in this role could include:
- Promoting the need to do things differently and at greater pace if we are to make the changes needed to address the climate and nature emergencies;
- Recognising that change is inevitable and that nature recovery should be inspired and informed by the past but not seek to simply replicate it;
- Accelerating the transition in land and marine use needed to deliver climate mitigation and adaptation and nature recovery;
- Testing and embedding natural capital approaches to growing a well-being and sustainable economy;
- Generating opportunities for greater private investment in natural capital;
- Realising the just transition by championing reskilling and new employment opportunities to help ensure that no local community in the Park area is left behind;
- Leading on improving ways of design and place making that achieve optimum outcomes for people, nature and landscapes.
Question 1. Do you support “leadership of nature recovery and a just transition to net zero” becoming the overarching purpose of Scotland’s National Parks? If not, what else would you propose?
No, I do not support this proposal. I’m not in favour of yet more rhetorical slogans lacking practical effect, especially this wording which seems far too broad, and has the disadvantage of lacking clear legal definition. So many things could be branded as ‘leadership’ or as ‘a just transition’.
Our National Parks are not some over-arching banner, but rather have the core purpose to achieve the specific aims defined in Statute. British National Parks are all focused on ‘protecting landscapes’ (as defined by IUCN Category 5) and none meet the IUCN National Park Category 2 definition of “large natural or near natural areas set aside to protect large-scale ecological processes” although land meeting the Category 2 definition may be required to achieve ‘nature recovery’ (some larger National Nature Reserves might better meet this requirement). The four aims defined in Statute show how ‘nature recovery’ in our Parks is inevitably compromised by considerations of land management, recreation pressures and local community viability. By design, ‘primacy of nature’ this is not.
I’m not sure there’s anything so wrong with the established statutory aims as to justify their revision. But their diverse nature carries unavoidable requirements for cooperation and conciliation. In practice, Scotland’s two National Parks were established especially to help manage pressures from recreation and tourism which other structures (local authorities and public bodies such as NatureScot or Forestry and Land Scotland working through various non-statutory committees) found difficult. But when it comes to land management, for example, our two Parks have relatively minor roles to play compared especially to the public bodies supporting farming and forestry which have much greater powers, resources and long-standing stakeholder relationships. While a third National Park might have a different focus to its predecessors, it would be essential that any such new focus provided clear added value over any alternative.
Question 2. Which of the proposed elements of leadership and action set out in the list above do you support? What others – if any – would you propose?
In general terms, I support all seven bullet points as identifying action required, but it isn’t clear why they are applied specifically to a National Park. There’s a variety of national and local public bodies who are just as much challenged by these statements, and who have greater resources and powers to help address them.
Question 3. What opportunities are there for National Parks to generate private investment in natural capital?
It’s clear that the quantity of public money which has been, and is likely to be, made available falls well short of need in tackling the nature and climate emergencies across Scotland. So there has to be a role for private investment; to date this has been problematic because private investors have not been subject to comparable transparency and accountability. The risk is that private money is simply driven by private gain, sometimes at the expense of the wider public interest. So there’s an urgent need to clarify the terms of this wider public interest in private investments in our natural capital. With this greater clarity, National Parks may perhaps be able to exemplify a proper balance of public and private interests.
Question 4. What role should local communities play in the National Park and how should National Park authorities work with and for them to secure a just transition?
National Parks, of the kind we have in Britain, cannot succeed without active engagement of their local communities. Scotland’s National Parks are exemplary in maintaining a line of local accountability through the election of local Board members, but this highlights the fact that the Parks were designated for their National significance and attract additional National funding which would otherwise not be available. Alignment of national and local interests and priorities may often be difficult, and the balance struck between them must always be open and transparent – that’s a key bargain driving access to these additional resources.
3. The Role of National Parks (continued) (Q5-7)
A national statement that sets out the Scottish “vision and mission” for National Parks could be useful to provide further clarity on the role of National Parks and to promote their work more widely.
Question 5. Do you support a “vision and mission” for all of Scotland’s National Parks being clearly set out in a national statement? If not why not?
Now that the terms of the 2000 Act are informed by two decades of experience, a new national statement could help clarify the role of our Parks. Such a statement provides an opportunity to explain where the National Parks designation fits in to, and enhances, Scotland’s rather piecemeal framework of designations.
There’s clearly a lack of consensus around what our National Parks are for, evidenced by the diverse responses to the ‘national discussion’ earlier this year. There was strong support, for example, for the idea of primacy of nature in National Parks, prioritising the protection and enhancement of biodiversity and ecosystem services. This idea is encouraged in the present consultation (for example “delivering more on the opportunities to restore nature as well protecting what exists already”, from the Scene setting paper), yet the present legislation does not provide such clarity of purpose. Our two National Parks lack the powers and resources to “maintain a working countryside”, despite this leading the list of key considerations in both cases. So some realism, yet ambition, in vision and mission would be welcome.
Question 6. If you favour a national statement for Scotland’s National Parks being developed, what else should it cover?
A national statement must set out a clear organisational framework for Scotland’s National Parks. Having our first two Parks as self-standing public bodies was pragmatic, but to continue in this way (with each new park creating yet another public body) risks greater confusion, especially if different parks develop distinct core purposes and priorities. As part of this, better clarity of the National Parks relationships with other public bodies and local authorities is required. Support for land management, for example, is dominated by farming (mainly RPID) and forestry (SF and FLS). Their shared purposes and relationships with National Parks are not explicit.
Question 7. To what extent should new National Parks be about the future potential of an area for nature restoration as well as what’s currently in place
This begs the question of the core purpose and priorities of any new National Parks. A primary focus on nature restoration may not be compatible with the multiple aims set out in Statute. Perhaps National Parks, on the Scottish model, may not be the best vehicle to achieve nature restoration (whereas for example a park meeting the IUCN Category 2 definition would be – perhaps designated as National Nature Reserves). A key issue here is the essential role of local communities; focus on nature restoration without their active support will fail, but we currently lack a clear path to reconcile local and national interests for example where national nature designations (SSSI, SAC, SPA etc) are determined and implemented centrally.
4. The Statutory Aims of National Parks (Q8-10)
National Park Aims are to:
- conserve and enhance the natural and cultural heritage of the area;
- promote the sustainable use of the natural resources of the area;
- promote understanding and enjoyment (including enjoyment in the form of recreation) of the special qualities of the area; and
- promote the sustainable social and economic development of the area’s communities.
“natural heritage” includes the flora and fauna of a National Park or a proposed National Park, its geological and physiographical features and its natural beauty and amenity.
“cultural heritage” includes structures and other remains resulting from human activity of all periods, language, traditions, ways of life and the historic, artistic and literary associations of people, places and landscapes.
Section 9 (6) – In exercising its functions a National Park authority must act with a view to accomplishing the purpose set out in subsection (1); but if, in relation to any matter, it appears to the authority that there is a conflict between the National Park aim set out in section 1(a) and other National Park aims, the authority must give greater weight to the aim set out in section 1(a).
National Parks (Scotland) Act 2000
There should naturally be a close relationship between the “vision and mission” of National Parks and the statutory Aims of National Parks provided in the Act. In covering environment, social and economic dimensions, the four statutory Park Aims currently provide the basis for Scotland’s integrated approach to National Parks. While none explicitly refers to it, the Aims also enable National Parks to contribute to nature recovery and a just transition to net zero.
Definitions of both the natural and cultural heritage are provided by the Act. The latter was developed before Our Place in Time, Scotland’s strategy for the historic environment, was written. Further consideration may be needed on whether this definition should be updated to reflect this strategy and its implementation as well as experience of its application within National Parks.
The National Park Authority is required to take forward each of the Aims in a joined-up way unless this is likely to lead to the detrimental loss of the natural heritage and cultural heritage of the area at which point it must give “greater weight” to this first Aim. This “balancing duty” is essential to the protected area function of Scotland’s National Parks.
While the current legislative approach has generally been seen as successful, a number of changes to these statutory Aims could be considered to further strengthen the focus and contribution of National Parks. Some of the possible broad options include:
- retaining the current status quo e.g. keeping the existing four Aims as currently worded;
- keeping the policy intention of each Aim unchanged but rewording them to better reflect the new vision and mission in the proposed national statement;
- keeping the four Aims but include a new overarching statutory purpose of National Parks to secure nature recovery and a just transition to net zero;
- adding additional aims e.g. “to promote the just transition to net zero” or “to increase the accessibility of the areas for all”; and
- reducing the Aims to the first one only and change the other three Aims to duties, thus giving the National Park a much stronger, single statutory focus on the protection and enhancement of the natural and cultural heritage.
Question 8. Are any specific changes to the existing four Aims required? If so why, and what are they?
Experience has been, over the last two decades, that our National Parks have focused on development planning and recreation management. Their role in land management (and hence maintaining “a working countryside”) has been limited by resources and overshadowed by the larger influence of other national public bodies. I’m not aware of any external review of their performance in taking forward each of the four aims in a joined-up way. There’s no obvious requirement to change these Aims unless the proposed National Statement clarifies the mission for our National Parks.
Question 9. Which of these possible options, or mix of possible options, do you think would help strengthen the focus and contribution of National Parks, and why?
Of the five options, only the last provides greater clarity of purpose, but begs the question of how much sign-up there would be among the many stakeholders. Options three and four risk even greater confusion, potentially adding an ‘alphabet soup’ of additional jargon hindering overall clarity of purpose.
Question 10. Are there other options that could be considered? If so, what are they?
It isn’t helpful to be considering the vision and mission of National Parks in isolation. The ‘national discussion’ earlier in the year revealed a diversity of perspectives and proposals, some of which might well be better handled in another way. A statement clarifying where our National Parks fit in to a wider framework of countryside management (including measures addressing land management, development planning, sustaining local communities and protection of natural and cultural heritage) would add value.
5. The Statutory Aims of National Parks (continued) (Q11-12)
Other public bodies are also bound by these statutory Aims when they are exercising functions within a National Park through the duty on them “to have regard” to the Park Plan.
Section 14 – The Scottish Ministers, a National Park authority, a local authority and any other public body or office-holder must, in exercising functions so far as affecting a National Park, have regard to the National Park Plan as adopted under section 12(7)(a).
This wording does not itself require action by public bodies. While the track record of partnership working by public bodies in National Parks is strong, issues can arise between policy objectives which may slow or block delivery of the Park Plan. To address this, there may be a need to strengthen the effect of this duty so that public bodies exercising functions within a National Park are required to positively support delivery of National Parks Plans.
Question 11. Do you think there should be any changes to the wording in the Act to require public bodies to support delivery of National Park Plans? If so, what would you propose?
In the absence of any external review showing positive effects of this duty, it seems likely that such vague exhortations are ineffective. But other public bodies cannot be expected to support a Park Plan which cuts across their respective roles. The ‘have regard’ duty appears to be an empty gesture which fails to address the underlying tensions.
Question 12. Do you have any other suggestions for improving partnership working to support the implementation of the National Park Plan by all?
Other public bodies must exercise their distinct functions consistently across Scotland, and /or across a range of functions beyond the remit of a National Park, so the Park Plan can never itself be the sole reference point. Greater clarity of these interactions and relationships, how they are managed and how they bear upon implementation of the Park Plan, would help foster a sense of shared purpose.
6. Powers and Functions of National Park Authorities (Q13-14)
At present, the Act provides the following powers and functions to all National Park Authorities These include:
- general powers of non-departmental government bodies (charges, advice, research, grant-aid; land acquisition and compulsory purchase etc.);
- natural heritage functions of local authorities and NatureScot (for example for countryside management, ranger provision, nature reserves, compulsory purchase and grants etc.); and the
- planning and access authority functions of local authorities.
Through the designation order, these powers and functions can be further specified to meet the needs and circumstances of the area.
All National Park Authorities also have general powers to make bylaws and management rules in relation to the achievement of the National Park aims. While not yet used, the legislation also contains unique powers for Scottish Ministers and public bodies to transfer their functions and powers to a Park body and vice versa.
Question 13. Could any of the existing powers and functions be used more effectively? If so, which ones and how? There’s an unavoidable tension between a focus on joined-up working within the Park boundary and the need for coherent, consistent and effective management of various functions across a wider area, often extending to Scotland as whole. It is surely significant that the powers to transfer functions and powers to or from a Park body have never been used over two decades. Such powers must be used judiciously, if at all, bearing this in mind. But greater clarity of how these tensions can best be managed and resolved would be beneficial.
Question 14. Are any of the existing powers or functions redundant or unnecessary? If so, which ones and why?
There’s no evidence that removal or restriction of powers and functions would aid the effectiveness of National Parks in delivering their mission.
7. Powers and Functions of National Park Authorities (continued) (Q15-16)
To take forward a refreshed “vision and mission”, National Park Authorities may require strengthened or new powers and functions in relation to the following areas
- Improving protection, enhancement and enjoyment of nature
- Delivering Net Zero
- Better management of land or sea
- Community well-being and development
Question 15. What, if any, changes to the powers and functions in these areas should be considered and why?
In the absence of a clear National Statement for Scotland’s National Parks, as proposed earlier, it’s hard to say what changes to powers and functions might be required. As long as the scope of our National Parks is aligned with IUCN Category 5 (protected landscapes) and the areas designated contain a variety of ownership types and human communities which must be sustained, then the present powers and functions are largely fit for purpose. Improvements then depend on better co-ordination of effort across the range of public bodies and stakeholder interests. To date such co-ordination has been patchy; it’s not obvious that better co-ordination can be imposed from above, or by enhanced powers to the Park Authority.
The five areas listed are all important, but none are uniquely relevant to our National Parks. It is wrong to argue that National Parks can fulfil some sort of ‘pathfinder’ role, because they cannot then model responses required where no National Park has been established.
Question 16. Are there any other areas where strengthened or new powers and functions will be needed by the National Park Authority? If so, what are they?
If a new National Statement gives rise to significant amendments to the vision and mission for all, or some, of our National Parks then corresponding revised powers and functions will be essential. For example, if a third National Park were to be designed to meet IUCN Category 2 (large natural or near-natural areas) then enhanced powers would be required to reflect a different balance of the wider public interest in protecting large-scale ecological processes along with provision of appropriate cultural, spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities.
8. Diversity in approach (Q17-18)
In thinking about powers and functions, a key question is the extent to which we want all our National Parks Authorities to be similar. Consideration may also be needed in relation to their governance and management. It could be that a new National Park Authority will need to be similar to the existing ones. Alternatively, very different approaches could be developed though bespoke arrangements set out in the individual designation order for each new National Park Authority which reflect the needs and geography of its area and its administration.
Any changes to the statutory Aims of National Parks and the powers, functions and governance of National Park Authorities will require amendments to the legislation and will be the subject of further consultation by the Scottish Government.
Question 17. Should the powers and functions of National Park Authorities be decided on a Park by Park basis? Should any apply to all National Park Authorities? If so, which ones and why?
A piecemeal, park by park, approach seems unlikely to succeed. The new National Statement needs to place our National Parks in context of wider protection measures corresponding to each of the four statutory aims (plus any amendments). Any bespoke arrangements for a specific Park would then have to be formally and carefully set in this wider context to avoid confusion.
Question 18. Are there any changes you would want to see to the governance and management arrangements of all National Park Authorities?
The prevailing model, of a self-standing executive NDPB for each park, does not look sustainable especially as a third and subsequent Parks are established. The merits of a Scotland-wide Park Service, with the economies of scale this offers, should be explored. But at the same time, each Park must have clear lines of accountability to the local communities within its boundaries and to its key stakeholders.
9. Section 2 – Criteria for selecting National Parks
This section considers the issues that need to be addressed in selecting new National Parks. While NatureScot has been asked to provide advice on how it should be done and what it should comprise, the Scottish Government will lead the development of the evaluation framework and the nomination process itself.
- Developing a nomination process for National Parks
- Criteria for nomination and evaluation
- Outstanding national importance
- Size and coherence
- Need or added-value
- Degree of support
- Strategic contribution
- Selection Criteria – other issues
10. Developing a nomination process for National Parks (Q19-21)
Scottish Ministers have committed themselves to an open, transparent and bottom-up nomination process for selecting new National Park areas rather than the traditional expert-led, top-down approach. This fits well with new thinking about “co-production” in protected areas approaches, conservation practice and public policy more generally.
Key elements of the approach envisaged by Scottish Ministers include:
- Development and publication of an evaluation framework to assess nominations;
- A request for nominations to be made with clear guidance and within a timeframe that encourages nominations from all parts of Scotland;
- The provision of advice and other support for potential areas to prepare nominations;
- An open and transparent evaluation of the nominations based on the agreed framework;
- Decisions on which area or areas to progress made by Scottish Ministers based on recommendations following this evaluation.
Question 19. Are these the key elements of an effective nomination process for National Parks in Scotland?
[As Section 2 sets out proposals for a nomination process along broadly the right lines, I haven’t answered these detailed questions 19-37 so as not to repeat points made in Section 1. I have offered some general comments in a response to Q38.]
19. Section 3 – Other issues and respondent information (Q38)
This final section covers other issues and respondent information
This consultation has focused on proposals for the role, powers and functions of National Park Authorities and the criteria for selecting new National Park areas. Future consultations from Scottish Government will follow, seeking views on the detail of any legislative changes Ministers consider are required and on a draft evaluation framework for selecting new National Parks. Following the finalisation of this evaluation framework, a call for nominations for specific areas will then be issued by Scottish Ministers.
Question 38. Are there any other issues about either Scotland’s approach to National Parks or the selection of new National Parks you would like to raise in your response at this stage?
The most striking omission in this detailed consultation is the question of affordability. A third National Park along similar lines to its predecessors will cost, say, £5m per annum in round terms. Is such a sum available without further erosion of related budgets (eg for NatureScot)? Where is the best added-value from a commitment of this scale?
As noted in earlier responses, there’s general confusion around the role and purpose of National Parks, and how they fit into a bigger picture. A new National Statement is the opportunity to set out this wider context, the relationships of Park bodies with other public authorities and the organisational structures required for a third and subsequent park designations. The National Statement is also an opportunity to set out the terms of the wider public interest where private investment in natural capital is being encouraged.
- See: The Future for National Parks in Scotland — Scottish Government Dialogue (ideas.gov.scot)
- The consultation was led by NatureScot on behalf of Scottish Government. The consultation landing page has been closed, so the only open link as of December 2022 is here: New National Park Consultation (Phase 1) – Scene Setting | NatureScot
- See: New National Park Consultation (Phase 1) – Scene Setting | NatureScot