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Natural Beauty: a term fit for public policy in the 21st century? Exploring changes in the meaning and measurement of Natural Beauty in AONB policy since 1949

Marsh, Sally E. M. (2024) Natural Beauty: a term fit for public policy in the 21st century? Exploring changes in the meaning and measurement of Natural Beauty in AONB policy since 1949. Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) thesis, University of Kent,. (doi:10.22024/UniKent/01.02.105462) (KAR id:105462)


Currently nearly one quarter of England's land area is designated as either Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) or National Park with a primary legislative purpose of conserving and enhancing Natural Beauty. Additional designated areas are planned as part of the Government's commitment to manage 30% of the UK's land and water for nature by 2030, with new environmental outcome targets set for all designations. Yet, the state of nature continues to decline and people's fair access to Natural Beauty diminishes. In this thesis, I explore the legislative term Natural Beauty and how its interpretation and measurement in public policy has affected policy success. Since Natural Beauty remains undefined and contested 70 years after the legislation designed to protect it, I start by critically examining the discourse of those who were instrumental in promoting and securing the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and propose a new theoretical model to understand the Act's intent. In doing so, I bring an aesthetic perspective to bear that reflects how beauty and nature/natural were understood at the time. I then employ a historical narrative approach to examine how and why, in the second half of the 20th century, the holistic concept of Natural Beauty became operationalised and flattened as 'landscape' in response to the demand for measurable and accountable policy decisions. Thematic studies analysing current methods of assessing Natural Beauty suggest that much of the legislative intent has been lost in this reframing, with inconsistent interpretations undermining the efficacy of policy approaches. Finally, I explore whether the policy intent to do no harm to Natural Beauty would be better served by improving decision-makers' understanding of it rather than the current focus on target setting which relies on symbolic or political indicators. Using mixed methods, I examine the attitudes and dispositions of decision-makers and find that, within the workplace, a disengaged and simplified interpretation of Natural Beauty has been internalised which contrasts with the vivid and richly textured descriptions decision-makers provide when asked about their personal experiences and connections to nature. I argue that returning policy focus to a more holistic and engaged idea of Natural Beauty, and adopting a consistent model, would better serve the current imperative to restore a low carbon, biodiverse, natural/cultural landscape. Within this model the concepts of subject and object (people and land/nature) coexist and interact, and citizens' emotional engagement with nature is no longer an optional add-on. Although Natural Beauty policy alone cannot reverse the declining condition of the natural world, a better conceptualisation of it supported by new guidance offers the opportunity to put the harmonious relationship between people and nature at the forefront of policy in these areas.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctor of Philosophy (PhD))
Thesis advisor: Tzanopoulos, Joseph
Thesis advisor: Fish, Rob
DOI/Identification number: 10.22024/UniKent/01.02.105462
Uncontrolled keywords: Natural beauty; Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty [AONBs]; National Landscapes; National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949; Cultural landscapes; Landscape assessment; Countryside policy; Wicked policy problems; Measuring beauty; Participatory research
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Anthropology and Conservation
Funders: University of Kent (
SWORD Depositor: System Moodle
Depositing User: System Moodle
Date Deposited: 27 Mar 2024 18:10 UTC
Last Modified: 28 Mar 2024 16:27 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Marsh, Sally E. M..

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