National Parks – National Tragedy?

Bear with me because I’ve come over all John Lennon. Imagine for a moment there are no national parks. Imagine what it would be like if the access we hold dear was a pipe dream, if the ecology of our wild areas wasn’t protected, if unimpeded development was taking bites out of the Peak District, South Downs and North York Moors.

It’s a frightening alternative reality that probably goes some way to explain why outdoor enthusiasts of every stripe care passionately about our wilderness areas and are heavily involved in protecting them.  But it’s important we ask ourselves just how effective and implacable that attachment is. Arguably we revere our national parks while simultaneously taking them for granted and ignoring fundamental questions about their future.

While our enjoyment of them has evolved over the years from zen-like immersion in nature to climbing and mountain biking, zip wires and zorbing, many visitors expect them to remain unchanging, a monocultural museum. A landscape that could be ecologically diverse remains a largely sterile grassy sward thanks to millions in farm subsidies. Tourism and adventure sports are the economic engine that drives our national parks while, at least to some extent, ensuring that sheep farming retains an aura of permanence it doesn’t necessarily deserve.

Which is symptomatic of our quixotic relationship with national parks. The remorseless decline in bio-diversity demands tough decisions, decisions we’re not necessarily prepared to embrace. However, there is an even greater existential threat to our national parks, an austerity driven death by a thousand cuts that can only compound existing frailties.

National parks were born in a post-war era when there was consensus that even in a time of austerity public policy had to be based on the greater good not the balance book. The NHS, welfare state and national parks can be viewed as a continuum, a manifestation of the post-war social contract, an expression of the belief that a country must be greater than the sum of its parts.

Once again we find ourselves, courtesy of the rich and powerful, in a time of adversity. We’re told the remedy for adversity is to pluck at the fraying hem of that social contract. The danger is that national parks will no longer be seen as an asset but as a drain on the nation’s finances that must be recouped. Which flies in the face of logic.

The Peak District is an economically deprived area relying predominantly on subsistence farming and tourism, the latter heavily outweighing the former in terms of financial return. Every penny spent protecting our national parks and encouraging people to visit is repaid tenfold in improved health and well-being and support for the local economy. There are more than 186m visitor days every year to the UK’s national parks with a spend of over £5billion. During the foot and mouth crisis of 2001 many businesses within national parks were pushed to the brink of bankruptcy by a dearth of visitors.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) published an eight point plan for national parks in 2016. It is full of inspiring proposals, many of which are entirely laudable. However, talk is cheap. Governments of every stripe have serially underfunded the national parks, forcing those who manage them to relegate their statutory duties of environment and recreational access to concentrate on revenue generation. The PDNP is funded to the tune of £6m a year, down nearly 40% in the last five years. The English National Opera gets £12m, The Royal Shakespeare Company, £15m and the Tate over £40m. Is the ENO really worth twice what the PDNP is worth? It’s difficult to compare the benefits of the arts to grand vistas and fresh air, but the disparity is patently grotesque.

How can national parks increase the number of school children who visit, encourage a greater diversity of visitors and support the local economy if their budget is constantly under attack? Salami slicing an anaemic government grant is surely indefensible given that national parks routinely fulfill many of the government’s policy objectives whether carbon sequestration, improved health or bio-diversity.

How do the national parks deal with this underfunding? While it is only fair to recognise that management are in an invidious position, the quality of the resulting decisions has to be examined. With every ham-fisted attempt to charge those who visit the national park, they drive a wedge between themselves and those who are their greatest supporters. Budget pressures lead inevitably to a reduction in staff numbers and the first casualties will tend to be the foot soldiers, rangers, ecologists and frontline workers.

The inevitable management restructuring is invariably a smoke-screen for cost cutting. Arcane language is used to confuse and bemuse those who seek to understand the changes and hold the national parks to account. The subtle shift in emphasis from rigid adherence to the twin statutory purposes of conservation and access to a creeping commerciality will inevitably result in the collective eye being taken off the environmental ball. Many people working in our national parks assert that much wildlife and habitat work now seems to be a case of going through the motions.

The checks and balances that should ensure change is neither precipitate nor counter-productive are increasingly absent. The structure of national park authorities, effectively the board of directors, is no longer up to the job. It is made up of local authority, district and parish representatives and secretary of state appointees. While a core of locally accountable democracy is obviously crucial some of the former know little about the land they are deputed to protect and the latter run the entire gamut from punctilious and knowledgeable to blithely ignorant.

Occasionally, someone slips through the net. The late, lamented Stella McGuire may have looked and sounded like a meek and mild archaeologist when she applied to join the PDNP Authority but she was more Indiana Jones than Tony Robinson, understood the issues and told truth to power. That she was in the minority is at least part of the problem. Secretary of State appointees are interviewed by existing authority members ensuring that new participants are almost invariably cut from the same cloth, minimising critical oversight of decisions.

Meanwhile, other land managers seem more fleet-footed in dealing with economically challenging times. The National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts have undergone a damascene transformation in the last few years. Realising that visitors are the lifeblood of protected landscapes, they are making strenuous efforts to actively engage with users and volunteers.

While the overall direction of travel may be set down in the founding principles of those organisations, the means of getting there is up for discussion. There may be missteps, friction and disagreements but differences between user groups are often more imagined than actual. Partnership working is crucial, effective and entirely preferable to rule by diktat.

Volunteers – a crucial part of looking after our national parks?

That we value our national parks is a truism. What is up for debate is our determination to fund and administer them appropriately. Wilderness is crucial to the health and well-being of the nation, the raw material for a nationwide policy to encourage our children to engage with nature and the front-line in our quest to foster bio-diversity. Future generations will never forgive us if we allow penny-pinching politicians to squander the natural health service that is our national parks.