An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is an area of high scenic quality which has statutory protection in order to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of its landscape. AONB landscapes range from rugged coastline to water meadows to gentle lowland and upland moors.
They are different from National Parks because of their more limited opportunities for extensive outdoor recreation.
Natural England has a statutory power to designate land as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
There are currently 33 AONB designations wholly within England along with the Wye Valley which spans the English-Welsh border. The East Hampshire and Sussex Downs AONB designations were revoked on the 31 March 2010 when the South Downs National Park Designation Order came into effect.
In all, AONB designation covers approximately 15 per cent of the land area of England with the smallest, the Isles of Scilly, being a mere 16 sq km and the largest the Cotswolds, totaling 2,038 sq km.
AONBs are designated solely for their landscape qualities, for the purpose of conserving and enhancing their natural beauty (which includes landform and geology, plants and animals, landscape features and the rich history of human settlement over the centuries).
They are designated under the provisions of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, in order to secure their permanent protection against development that would damage their special qualities, thus conserving a number of the finest landscapes in England for the nation’s benefit.
The Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act 2000 bought in new measures to help protect AONBs further. The role of local authorities was clarified; this now includes the preparation of management plans to set out how they will care for their AONBs.
The CROW Act also introduced the option to create conservation boards to manage AONBs: there are currently two of these boards, in the Cotswolds and the Chilterns.
A third new measure in the CROW Act was to say that all public bodies have a duty of regard for the purposes of AONBs when undertaking their work.
The overall purpose of AONBs is complemented by three aims:
the primary purpose of AONB designation will be to conserve natural beauty;
recreation will not be an objective of designation but AONBs should be used to meet the demands for recreation as far as this is consistent with the conservation of natural beauty and the needs of agriculture, forestry and other users; and
in pursuing the primary objective of designation, account should be taken of the need to safeguard agriculture, forestry, other rural industries and of the economic and social needs of local communities.
Natural England is responsible for designating AONBs and advising Government and others on how they should be protected and managed.
There are local AONB partnerships in all AONBs led by local authorities and including a wide range of key organisations. These partnerships are dedicated to the conservation of these nationally important areas. Staff teams funded mainly by the local authorities and Natural England are based locally to co-ordinate and deliver action on the ground. Information on each of the Partnerships can be obtained by accessing the information linked to the designations on the map below.
An AONB Management Handbook supports AONB staff and gives technical advice on a number of key areas.