Martin Lane steps down as Director of the Cotswolds Conservation Board
PUBLISHED: 09:30 21 October 2019
As Martin Lane, Director of the Cotswolds Conservation Board, steps into retirement, he talks to Siân Ellis about the Board’s pioneering role, achievements over the last 20 years... and lugging a Google Trekker along the Cotswold Way
I know it sounds a bit coy, but you have to remind yourself how lucky you are to live and work in such a fantastic landscape," says Martin Lane. Set to retire as Director of the Cotswolds Conservation Board at the end of September after 20 years in the role, he is fielding inevitable journalist questions like: what have you most enjoyed about the job?
"There are far more dramatic landscapes than the Cotswolds, which is gentle and undulating compared with, say, the mountains of the Lake District," he continues. "But I challenge anybody to show me an area that combines high-quality landscapes with high-quality architecture quite as well as the Cotswolds does."
It's this sort of passion for our Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), combined with an enthusiastic can-do attitude (impending retirement is "another adventure") that have characterised Martin's management approach. A modest man, he is swift to acknowledge his good luck in working with "such a rich mix" of colleagues: 37 board members (appointees from local authorities, parish councils and Defra) and around 15 staff at Northleach, supported by some 400 Cotswold Voluntary Wardens.
Over the last two decades, there have been many collective achievements under Martin's leadership. The Cotswolds Conservation Board itself came into existence in 2004; today's flourishing Cotswolds Rural Skills courses began in 2005. Caring for the Cotswolds has raised thousands of pounds for environmental projects, orchard planting to charcoal making; while the Cotswolds LEADER Programme, captured by the Board and partners in 2015, has currently supported 52 projects across the AONB with a total grant value of £1.7m - collectively expected to create over 90 jobs in sectors ranging from rural businesses to farming and forestry. To highlight just a few landmarks.
So how did Martin come to work in the Cotswolds; what shaped his views on conservation? Raised in north London, he had an urban childhood but being a member of youth groups, particularly the Scouts, in the 1970s "opened my eyes to the great outdoors in terms of walking, exploring and camping; travelling to Wales, Scotland, Gloucestershire and the Lake District. I camped with the Scouts on the Cotswold escarpment, looking across the Severn into Wales." He still remembers the "sense of adventure".
A degree in Geography and a Masters in Environmental Forestry followed, and Martin worked around the country: doing practical conservation work in Snowdonia National Park with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers and as Nature Reserve Warden for Durham County Wildlife Trust. Throughout these experiences, Martin was impressed by "people prepared to stick their heads above the parapet and take calculated risks, to try something new, something different."
A stint on a Countryside Stewardship exchange programme advising on the management of Chesapeake Bay, USA, plus more recently a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship to investigate governance of protected landscapes in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, also left an impression.
"While there is a lot of common ground, the likes of Canada and New Zealand in particular have a far simpler approach to landscape conservation. We can break down almost anything into its smallest common denominator, whereas Canada and New Zealand in particular would take a more national, countrywide approach.
"Looking at our system of National Parks and AONBs, for example: could we make do with one designation? Would the public understand that a lot more, embrace it, celebrate it more than possibly they do now? I sincerely hope the idea for the Cotswolds to be designated a National Park will be given serious consideration."
Leading the way
Martin came to work in the Cotswolds in 1999, to lead the establishment of the new local authority-hosted Cotswolds AONB Partnership, although almost immediately the goalposts changed with the Countryside & Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW) that allowed for the establishment of independent conservation boards - the Cotswolds Conservation Board became the first, in 2004.
"The great benefit was that the Conservation Board has a very clear remit: to conserve and enhance the natural beauty of the AONB; and to promote greater understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the AONB," Martin says. "Being an independent organisation with its own voice and its own policies is good. It looks at the AONB as a whole, rather than inadvertently fragmenting it into 15 different [local authority] components."
Bringing the Board into existence has, in itself, been among the achievements of which he is most proud. "It was a new approach to looking after the countryside, exciting and challenging."
He is particularly pleased, too, at the growth and diversity of the Cotswolds Rural Skills programme, covering everything from dry stone walling (and establishment of the Dry Stone Walling Academy in 2014) to blacksmithing and wool weaving. As with the recently launched Glorious Cotswold Grasslands project (Cotswold Life, July), "We've aimed to move away from grants to setting up programmes on a more sustainable financial footing."
Martin says he has "no specific plan" for his retirement, although he would love to walk and explore more landscapes of mainland Europe. Walking in the Cotswolds is a bit of a passion as well, although taking it in turns with other staff members a few summers ago to lug a Google Trekker on his back along the whole length of the 102-mile Cotswold Way was not entirely relaxing (the resulting 'Street View' footage on the National Trail website is great for virtual touring and walks planning!).
More likely these days, Martin will be found with wife Sue, family and springer spaniel Brith exploring the Evenlode Valley or commons to enjoy the big open skies. He hopes that promotion of the Cotswolds as the Walking and Exploring Capital of England will gain momentum.
"A key USP for the Conservation Board is its collective ability to think about the AONB as a whole and to be ambitious for the area," he says. Long may it continue. And Happy Retirement, Martin.
For further information on the Cotswolds AONB and the Cotswolds Conservation Board, visit cotswoldsaonb.org.uk.