The proposals, which will be unveiled to mark the 50th anniversary of the creation of the National Park system, will mean that one quarter of England's land mass will be safeguarded against insensitive development and "opened up to the people". Ministers see this move - with the "right to roam" measures announced 10 days ago - as completing the "unfinished business" of the post-war Attlee government.
The Labour administration laid out plans in 1945 for protecting beautiful countryside, and guaranteeing access to it, but it failed to fully implement them. The current in- tention is to ensure that the Blair government leaves as permanent a mark on the landscape as its illustrious predecessor.
Last week the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher, revealed at a conference organised by UNED-UK, a United Nations support group, that he had "exciting" plans to mark the 50th anniversary of National Parks. Tony Burton, assistant director of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said that the scheme, once implemented, would mark "the kind of initiative that comes once in a generation".
The plans, which are closely based on recommendations by the Countryside Commission, the government's official landscape advisers in England, would turn the New Forest into a National Park and enormously strengthen England's 37 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
The AONBs - which include the Cotswolds, the Forest of Bowland, the Isles of Scilly, the Chilterns, the Sussex Downs, Kent's High Weald, Dedham Vale in East Anglia, and the Mendips, Quantock and Malvern Hills - have long been the Cinderellas of conservation.
They are officially recognised to be as beautiful, if often less wild than the National Parks, and are spread much more evenly around the country. They are supposed to have some protection, but in practice have been far more prey to development and intensive agriculture than the parks. They have not had the resources to promote conservation and cater properly for walkers and other visitors.
Large parts of some AONBs - such as the Sussex Downs and the North Wessex Downs - have been ploughed up and ruined over the past decades. Others are coming under pressure from development - massive holiday villages in the Wiltshire Downs and High Weald, plans for a dual carriageway through Devon's Blackdown Hills, and the erection of a mobile phone mast over Dedham Vale.
The new plans would make such destruction harder by making the AONBs National Parks in all but name.
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