National Parks are facing some of the biggest challenges since they were created more than six decades ago. But are they fulfilling their original aims? We put the question to you.
Sixty four years ago the first National Park was created in Britain.
The country’s finances were had been decimated after World War Two. Britain was in the midst of an ‘Age of Austerity’ – some types of rationing were even still in place.
Yet huge changes were being wrought by the government, backed by the people.
The National Health Service was born during these years and the modern welfare state was created, lifting millions out of poverty. After the ravages of war, a huge effort was underway to rebuild the country, with the aim of creating ‘a land fit for heroes’ at its core.
The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949 was another milestone of these years. Described as “a people’s charter for the open air’’, it gave the go-ahead for areas of beautiful, wild and scenic countryside across England and Wales to be designated as National Parks.
These parks were envisaged as places where wildlife could flourish, where local communities would prosper, and where the unique natural and human heritage of those areas would be preserved.
But above all, they were spaces for ordinary people. Spaces where they could experience freedom, adventure and the restorative effects of nature for as little cost as possible.
More than six decades later, these National Parks face some of the biggest challenges since they were created.
Funding for National Parks in England was cut by more than 30% in 2010. In the spending review announced last month, National Park budgets in England were again put at risk when DEFRA announced it would reduce spending by a further 9.6% in 2015/16 – one of the biggest cuts to any department.
In Britain’s latest ‘Age of Austerity’ under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition government, the environment is bearing a heavy part of the burden of cutbacks in public spending.
With their funding slashed, National Parks have already had to make hard choices.
The Peak District National Park has leased some of its most treasured natural assets to raise revenue. In 2011 it leased the Roaches and the Eastern Moors and is currently debating whether to sell Stanage Edge and the North Lees Estate near Hathersage, an iconic walking and climbing destination, or develop it for 'commercial' purposes.
Other National Parks have made dramatic staff cuts; axing rangers, scrapping footpath maintenance schemes and reducing engagement work with the public.
There have also been calls to shrink National Parks or even abolish them altogether. In Wales, the leaders of Powys, Gwynedd and Pembrokeshire councils have said the parks are no longer affordable, and argued for control over planning decisions to return to local authorities.
Meanwhile, visitor numbers to National Parks are increasing. Roads are more congested, paths are seeing heavier footfall, towns and villages are seeing greater numbers of visitors. Demand on National Park services is growing, even as the pool of resources available to meet these demands is shrinking.
It’s clear this is a difficult time for National Parks. But the present time also presents opportunities as well as challenges.
We believe National Parks can play an important role in addressing big social, environmental and economic problems.
For example, millions of people face financial insecurity, with poor health the inevitable by-product. A recent survey showed that 80% of adults in England don’t exercise enough, and that people on a low wage were more likely to be unhealthy.
National Parks can combat this as inclusive places, open to all, that encourage people to seek adventure and personal challenge.
Nature is also in in trouble – a recent ‘stocktake’ of UK wildlife showed 60% of species were in decline and one in 10 were at risk of disappearing altogether.
National Parks can help reverse this trending by promoting biodiversity and natural regeneration, making for a more vibrant environment and bringing tangible material benefits in terms of flood risk reduction, water purification and carbon storage.
Outdoor recreation also has the potential to bring big economic benefits to communities – the Wales Coast Path, for example, generated £16 million to local shops and businesses in its first year.
National Parks may cost money, but they offer some of the best ‘value’ in public spending. For example, the Loch Lomond and Trossachs and Cairngorms parks in Scotland combined cost around £15 million a year to run - but they contributed £243 million to Scotland’s economy last year.
The BMC and its volunteers work closely with nearly all our National Parks in England and Wales. We help them communicate messages to the public, respond to consultations on their future, make funding available for projects within National Parks and lobby them for improvements we think will benefit walkers, climbers and outdoorgoers generally.
We want to ensure that National Parks stay true to their founding purpose, and remain public bodies for the benefit of the public.
But to do this work effectively, we would like to hear your views on the best way to do this.
The basic question we want to ask is how you perceive the work of National Parks. Who do you think they work for? What is your experience of National Park services? And do you think they are doing ‘a good job’?
Some National Parks are attempting to respond to the challenges they face by introducing controversial measures, such as encouraging more involvement by the private sector, building tourist development, and introducing more charging of visitors for facilities like car parks.
It is possible that in the future this sort of thing will become more common as National Parks look to find new sources of funding.
As a ‘user’ of National Parks, what is your experience of charging for facilities like car parks or toilets? Are you happy to pay these charges? Do you think they are too high? If money from charges could be channelled directly into projects such as landscape regeneration and footpath maintenance, would it affect how you felt about them?
‘Capital projects’ like iconic visitor centres, one-off conservation projects and cafés are also commonplace – but do you think these developments are valuable? Would the money be better spent elsewhere?
Would you be prepared to volunteer your time to do footpath maintenance, litter clear-ups and similar work, if it would otherwise not be done?
Above all, do you think National Parks are fulfilling their original aims?
Please give us your thoughts in the comment box below – we welcome debate and discussion, and your responses will be fed into the work the BMC does to help improve and guide the work of National Parks.
This article is part of BMC on Foot, a push to raise awareness of the BMC’s work for hill walkers and its stance on a range of topical issues affecting hill walkers. Please help us by completing our hill walking survey.
Want to get into hill walking? The BMC has teamed up with excellent Plas y Brenin centre in Snowdonia to offer a series of Head for the Hills starter courses. A great way to get the skills you need to be confident in the mountains, you get a discount of up to 50% with free transport from Llandudno Railway Station. For more information see here.