Breaking New Ground

BLOG - June 2014

Environmentalist and broadcaster Chris Baines explains why he is passionate about open spaces, and what motivated him to take on role of chair for the VIP project’s Stakeholder Advisory Group.

I grew up in Sheffield, with parents whose passion was rambling. Weekends were spent in the Peak District and holidays were spent in the Lake District or Snowdonia – often in the rain.

As a student in Kent, I learned to love the rolling landscape of the Weald, and for most of my working life Mid Wales and the Blue Remembered Hills of Shropshire have been my escape routes from the urban West Midlands.

Presenting BBC TV’s Countryfile saw me striding through landscapes from Cornwall to the Scottish Borders, and in the years when I was teaching landscape architecture I ran study tours for my students in several more rural areas of England and Wales.

One way or another I have been lucky enough to visit a great many of the country’s National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).

How very lucky we are to have such a wonderful landscape legacy in our crowded island. In worldwide terms our own National Parks and specially protected landscapes are unusual.

They are not untamed wilderness. They are farmed, forested and generally quite heavily populated. The walls and hedges, crops, farm animals and settlements reinforce the character of each place and strengthen its distinctive character and we are admired for our ability to strike a balance between public enjoyment, economic productivity and landscape protection.

While a sleepy village or meandering canal may be regarded as assets in the rural landscape, there are other human interventions that are more contentious. There is general resistance to new roads that bring traffic noise and movement into tranquil corners of the countryside. Insensitively sited conifer plantations, quarrying on an industrial scale and very big buildings are all unpopular, while wind turbines generate strong feelings wherever they are seen to threaten unspoiled open landscapes.

Some compromise is unavoidable in a country where land is in such short supply and people pressure is so great. However, there are exciting new moves afoot to moderate the visual impact of one major element in our most precious stretches of countryside.

A UK fund of £500 million from Ofgem has been made available to deal with some of the most intrusive existing transmission lines in National Parks and AONBs. The largest of these structures belong to National Grid and it is working collaboratively with stakeholders to seize the opportunity that the fund creates to conserve and enhance our most treasured landscapes. I think the company should be congratulated for seizing the opportunity and acting with such enthusiasm.

£500 million is a lot of money, and it needs to be spent wisely. Removing pylons and running cables underground is a very expensive exercise, but it can make a dramatic difference to some of our best loved landscapes. Deciding where best to make the investment is a task that is being delegated to a specially established advisory panel of representatives from a number of the UK’s countryside interest groups and government agencies. I’m delighted to be their chairman.

We will make our decisions in the light of a thorough programme of landscape analysis by two teams of specialist landscape consultants, under the very experienced guidance of Professor Carys Swanwick.

Their preparatory work is being carried out throughout this summer, and we expect to begin allocating funds within a year.

The chosen sites will be subjected to considerable local consultation and the process will be as transparent as we can make it, with each step shared with the public. We expect to support a whole range of projects, both large and small, and we will do our best to make the most effective use of the available money and expertise.

The more ambitious changes will take some time to deliver on the ground, but we can look forward to some spectacular visual improvements to a number of very special landscapes by the end of 2018.

I think this is a very exciting initiative, and Ofgem should be congratulated for using their power and influence on all our behalves in such a positive way.

The impact on the landscape will be dramatic, but I hope we might use this as a powerful precedent for achieving similar contributions to the landscape from other regulated industries.

Perhaps Ofwat, the water regulator, can adopt a similar bold approach in asking water companies to invest in the rural landscapes that provide our natural drinking water reservoirs. Maybe the railway companies can be encouraged by their regulator to use the national transport network to weave wildlife habitats back together.

My parents’ generation campaigned for the right to enjoy National Parks and other special areas of countryside. I hope this power line project will be seen as helping to support that proud tradition.