SOMERSET'S protected rural landscapes have a new name – but no additional powers or extra funding to protect them from future development.

In addition to the Exmoor National Park, Somerset is home to four areas of outstanding natural beauty (AONBs) – the Blackdown Hills, Cranborne Chase, the Mendip Hills and the Quantock Hills.

The government announced on Wednesday (November 22) that all AONBs would be re-branded as ‘national landscapes’, to reflect the “vital contribution” they make to promoting health and well-being and combating climate change.

But Somerset Council has confirmed that the newly-named organisations will not have any additional powers to prevent unwanted development – and will not receive any extra funding from either central or local government to carry out their legal duties.

The legal framework for the AONBs was laid out in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, with the designated areas being regarded as “sisters to the NHS” to safeguard the nation’s nature and well-being.

The Quantock Hills was made the UK’s first AONB in 1956, running from the west Somerset coast at Watchet to the outskirts of Taunton, with Bridgwater lying to the east and Williton to the west.

The Mendip Hills followed in 1972, being bordered by Weston-super-Mare to the west, Wells and Cheddar to the south, Midsomer Norton to the east and Langford to the north.

Cranborne Chase predominantly lies within Dorset and Wiltshire, though a small section crosses the Somerset border east of Wincanton and south-east of Frome.

Somerset County Gazette: Cheddar Reservoir.Cheddar Reservoir. (Image: Daniel Mumby)

The Blackdown Hills was formally designated an AONB in 1991, straddling the Devon-Somerset border and being surrounded by Wellington, Taunton and Chard.

AONBs have been under considerable pressure in recent years to prevent unwanted development, as nearby towns and villages expand to provide more housing and create more jobs.

The Quantocks have seen particular pressure as a result of the growing Hinkley Point C workforce, with new housing estates being planned for Nether Stowey and camp-sites being expanded for extra workers

The Mendips have also been threatened by development, with numerous sizeable housing estates being approved in Cheddar and Wells (though one was recently refused by the Planning Inspectorate).

Somerset Council said that the name change did not come with any additional powers to prevent extra homes – and it would not result in any increased influence in the creation of the new Somerset-wide Local Plan, which will be completed by early-2028.

A spokesman said: “There are no additional powers. Legally national landscapes are still areas of outstanding natural beauty, with all the legislation through the Countryside and Rights of Way Act and the National Planning Policy Framework still applying.

“The intention with the name change is to draw attention to the national importance of these landscapes and underline existing legislation.

“There are no implications for Somerset’s new Local Plan.”

While the vast majority of the national landscapes’ funding come from central government, local authorities do make financial contributions in recognition of their work – either to fund general costs or to support specific projects.

Somerset Council currently provides the Mendip Hills national landscape with £30,000 a year towards its running costs, as well as providing £44,400 to the Quantock Hills, £21,122 to the Blackdown Hills and £1,723.08 to Cranborne Chase.

The council said there was “no indication of this figure being reduced”, despite a financial emergency being declared in early-November in light of a predicted £100m budget gap for the 2024/25 financial year.

The new national landscapes will be focusing on restoring habits to indigenous species, planting thousands of new trees (in line with the recently-approved Somerset tree strategy) and increasing the number of people who visit the areas for both business and pleasure.

Both the Mendips and the Quantocks have been badly hit by ash dieback in the last few years, with Somerset County Council and its successor Somerset Council having to remove and replace large numbers of trees to prevent the disease from spreading.

Councillor Dixie Darch, portfolio holder for the environment and climate change, said: “The names may be changing but these remain the same beautiful spaces that residents have enjoyed for many years and are so important to Somerset’s identity.

“We will be working closely with colleagues to see how these spaces and their enhanced status can complement and support wider council-led work such as our tree strategy and Somerset’s local nature recovery strategy.”