Environment minister Edwin Poots opened the 11th Conference of the National Association of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) by highlighting the importance of AONBs in generating tourism.

He told the 180 delegates: “Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) not only bring enjoyment and enhance well-being for our own communities, but they are a valuable resource on which to base and grow tourism.”

The theme of the conference, held at the University of Ulster earlier this month (July 7-9), was Valuing Our Environment: Diamonds in the Landscape.

It coincided with the 60th anniversary of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.

This legislation created National Parks but also AONBs – areas deemed outstanding for their flora, fauna, historical or cultural associations and scenery.

Northern Ireland has nine with two more proposed, England 35, Wales four with another straddling the border between the countries.

They have the same level of legal protection as National Parks but do not have their own authorities for planning control and other services.

Instead, local authorities and people look after them in partnership.

But Northern Ireland has no National Parks unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, which has 14 – England nine, Wales three and Scotland two.

Moves to establish one in the Mourne Mountains have proved controversial.

The government is now proposing new legislation to pave the way for the creation of national parks in the province.

Detailed proposals outlining a policy framework for national parks are due before the Northern Ireland Executive after the summer recess.

Mr Poots told delegates he is looking forward to drafting the legislation.

He said: “I believe the right model for National Parks is one that embraces environmental community and economic concerns.”

Supporters argue national parks would bring major environmental and economic benefits.

But others fear they would restrict development, interfere with land ownership, rural life or farm practices and allow access to private land.

Environment minister Sammy Wilson last month (June) sought to ease concerns.

He said: “I do not plan to give a national park management body planning powers although we may wish to consider whether it should have a consultative role in relation to development proposals.

“I do not envisage a management body having unnecessary regulatory powers or the power to compulsorily acquire land. Finally I have no intention of creating a right to roam in national parks.”

David Gibbs

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