The above principles of the Ecosystem Approach are evident (light green) or significant (dark green) within this case study

Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)

Key Question

How can we review our AONB management plan mindful of the benefits provided by ecosystem services?

Tools used

What is this case study about?

This case study is about how the Ecosystem Approach and its analysis might emerge as a driver in managing the Cotswolds’ landscapes.

What is its contextual setting?

The Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is designated for its high quality landscape. A statutory Conservation Board across seven local authorities is charged to help ensure that the natural assets are conserved, enhanced, better understood and enjoyed. This has to be done in a way that also fosters the economic and social well-being of local communities.

The main tool for this is the Board’s Management Plan, updated every five years, which all relevant public agencies are bound by law to take into account in their operations. The Plan is also a crucial communication tool helping to inform land managers and others. In promoting conservation and sustainable development, the Board’s approach needs to reflect the integrated management of land, water and living resources – in other words an Ecosystems Approach. A recent challenge for Board Members and officers was to reflect the Ecosystem Approach in updating their Plan.

How has the Ecosystem Approach been used?

The Ecosystem Approach did not feature in the initial development of the Plan. At that point, in 2010, the main concern was to overcome criticisms of the previous Plan; that it was both too complex and too generic, and that it had not engaged partners, public bodies or parish councils sufficiently to positively influence their decisions. But then a Board workshop in summer 2011, following publication of the Natural Environment White Paper, led officers to replace the traditional ‘exploitative’ view of natural resources within a systems approach.

The subsequent Strategic Environmental Assessment did not, however, represent the integrated analysis that an Ecosystems Services Framework demands; thus ecosystems services was presented as an add-on benefit to society alongside scenic beauty, cultural heritage, economic development and green infrastructure – a point which the public consultation responses, including from Defra and its agencies, did not pick up on. At the final stages of plan preparation, however, pressure from the Secretary of State appointed members (informed by the lead taken in the latest Exmoor Park Plan) persuaded the Board that some retrofitting of the draft plan was needed to emphasise the more holistic approach that ecosystems science demands.

What has happened?

Ecosystems services are still presented in the final Cotswolds AONB Management Plan for 2013-18 as one of five multiple benefits for society delivered by good management and conservation of the outstanding landscape. But the introduction now provides a straightforward explanation of ecosystems services – divided into the four main categories. And the following double page spread (pages 10-11 of the Plan) illustrates the main services delivered from the AONB area, and how these will be sustained or enhanced by the individual plan objectives.

What is the added value of using the Ecosystem Approach?

  • Retrofitting an Ecosystems Approach in this way may lead to operational changes as part of on-going review procedures.
  • Using the Ecosystem Approach signals the joined-up nature and interdependencies of management actions.
  • Ecosystem services are linked to specific management plan actions; thus will be used and assessed in the implementation stage.

What are the key barriers to progress/mainstreaming?

  • Language of ‘ecosystem services’ does not engage; seen as a specialist approach.
  • People find it hard to adjust to the mindset of ecosystems thinking.
  • Ecosystems services can look like yet another environmental overlay supplementing biodiversity, environmental assessment, climate change adaptation and mitigation and the like.
  • The Ecosystems Approach ought to simplify the policy landscape by bringing such themes together and inform overall priorities.
  • It needs to be used and accepted by all but is not.
  • Strategic Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Assessment processes do not help because they have become a bureaucratic routine.
  • They are used more to justify policies and actions already in the minds of decision makers, rather than to guide those people towards the best course of action.
  • Ecosystems services theory is not complemented by economically efficient delivery instruments.
  • Rewards under the Common Agriculture Policy, for example, compensate farmers for lost income, rather than rewarding the value of the non-food public goods they deliver.
  • The interpretation of National Planning Policy Guidance by the Secretary of State, Inspectors and local government does not easily coexist with the strategic analysis of ecosystems – which makes it harder to encourage an ecosystems services framework to the use of land as a national resource.

What are the lessons learnt?

  • Even a retrofitting approach can improve understanding about the priorities for action – which in turn (in this AONB) drive a separate business plan guiding the day-to-day work of the Board.
  • In looking at the ecosystems services delivered, it is crucial to identify the beneficiaries and to estimate the relative values of services provided, in order to prioritise where there are conflicts or where resources are limited.
  • Going beyond traditional administrative boundaries takes members outside comfort zones with genuine landscape-scale approaches.

What next?

  • Having introduced ecosystems thinking, the Board now needs to flesh out the map and create a clearer picture of the suppliers and consumers of ecosystems services; these supply chains should then be subjected to SWOT analysis, in order to help inform the Board in prioritising activities at a time when resources are increasingly under pressure.
  • Putting the Plan in place is not enough; its effectiveness in practice will depend on action by the Board to explain and persuade its public and private sector partners how an Ecosystems Approach will lead to better outcomes.
  • The next plan needs to be structured more clearly around ecosystems and cultural service drivers, and needs to communicate the concept simply and persuasively.

Case study author: Richard Wakeford