Could corporate sponsorship turn our national parks into outdoor Disneylands?

Posted by Carey Davies on 05/07/2016
Autumn fog over Loughrigg Tarn in the Lake District National Park. Photo: Daniel Kay / shutterstock

A new company set up to persuade big business to support national parks has been criticised over fears it could lead to ‘Disneyfication’. Should we be worried? In the first of three articles exploring the future of our national parks, Carey Davies takes a look.

The creation of national parks was one of the milestones of modern Britain, to rank with the creation of the NHS and the welfare state.

In 1949, while the country was still clearing up the rubble and counting the vast cost of World War Two, the government passed an act which was described as “a people’s charter for the open air” and gave the go-ahead for places across England and Wales to be permanently enshrined as precious landscapes.

But as with other postwar institutions, these are ‘challenging’ times for national parks. Despite their budgets being held last autumn, since 2010 park authorities in England have had an average budget cut of almost 40% in real terms, and their counterparts in Wales are potentially facing more.

The impacts go beyond penny-pinching and paperclip-counting; as the Campaign for National Parks has shown, among many other things footpath work has been reduced, hundreds of people have lost their jobs and public transport services have been cut.

Predicament

The BMC’s recent Mend Our Mountains campaign was designed to give a financial injection to national parks; we crowdfunded more than £100,000 for urgent upland path repair projects in eight national parks in England and Wales, a fantastic fundraising effort by the outdoor public. But the financial predicament of national parks is much bigger than this.

Growing financial pressures have brought about a change in the way national parks are seeking to fund themselves in the long term. Increasingly they are looking outside the public purse to find revenue.

In recent years individual national parks have introduced their own fundraising initiatives, like introducing new charges for services, trialling ‘visitor payback’ schemes or seeking to generate more cash from visitor centres and properties.

But now things look set to be scaled up. The National Parks Partnership is a company recently set up by the UK’s 15 national parks to create “successful corporate partnerships that generate vital income for the parks.”

The company aims to bring the entire UK national park family together into a single ‘brand’ that can be touted to potential business sponsors as a package, with the proceeds divided up between them. 

‘Disneyfication’?

Not surprisingly, the idea of bringing in big business to sponsor national parks has provoked fears of commercialisation. Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society (OSS), has strongly criticised the new company, writing in the OSS magazine: “Businesses will want their profits from the scheme through Disneyfication and crassly inappropriate sponsorships.”

Cloud trails from Hen cloud in the Peak District at sunrise. Photo: Olliesammons / Shutterstock

Speaking to the BMC, Kate elaborated on her concerns. “What worries me is the potential for it to go wrong,” she says. “The fear is that when you get into partnership with businesses, while some are completely prepared to be public-spirited, many will want something out of it which is not in line with national park principles.

“We already have park authorities trying to use their land and properties for more commercial purposes. We don’t know where it’s all heading.  The nightmare scenario is that the idea of national parks as a sanctuary is lost and they become like everywhere else.

“The current postholders in the National Parks Partnership are all saying ‘of course we wouldn’t dream of doing anything like that’. But there are very uncertain times ahead and if things get more desperate you never know what might happen. I think it’s absolutely right to challenge it and put out a warning.”

Ethos

Naomi Conway is the Development Director for the National Parks Partnership. Responding to Kate’s comments, she says: “We’re not talking about slapping big logos in fields. The corporate sponsorship we’re looking for is more nuanced and sophisticated than that. Whatever we do needs to fit with the ethos of national parks.

“National parks are not like football teams. We are not offering 'title' sponsorships, so a company couldn’t have named sponsorship of the whole Lake District. We might, however, have a company sponsor National Parks Week. Or we could have something like an official supplier of apparel to National Park rangers. That way we save money on clothing, and we could put that money back into other areas, for example, paths."

The impetus for the creation of National Parks Partnerships largely comes out of financial necessity, but Naomi also outlines a positive vision for what future partnerships with well-known companies could achieve. “It could help us to talk about the parks on a national platform,” she said. “It’s not just about money but also about creating a message which encourages people to visit the parks, to understand and value them. If you look at Americans, they know all about their national parks. They’re a part of their national identity. I don’t think they have the same level of profile or the sense of public ownership here. That’s what we want to help try and create.”

Smells like green spirit

A glimpse of what might be to come was provided last year, when Air Wick released a range of four officially-authorised air fresheners inspired by “the freshness of our iconic country landscapes”. Air Wick made the initial approach to the parks, but the success of the resulting collaboration is what gave the parks the inspiration for National Parks Partnerships.

Publicity around the deal promised that money raised would be put back into ‘vital heritage projects’.  Two years on, the money has gone into controlling Himalayan balsam and managing species-rich grassland in the Peak District; building a boardwalk next to Ullswater in the Lake District; purchasing tools for rangers to carry out more than half a dozen access projects in the North York Moors; and building a sensory garden in the Norfolk Broads.

All of which sounds very worthwhile. But the obvious question it begs is why the names of national parks first had to become part of a marketing ploy for air fresheners to secure this funding. Shouldn’t these works be covered by public funds?

Brewing up at sunset on Fleetwith Pike in the Lake District. Photo: Duncan Andison

Naomi Conway says: “Across so many sectors, including culture, there’s an argument that ‘if you start raising your own money it lets government off the hook’. I don’t agree. The 8 Point Plan for English National Parks in March made it clear that government expects us to start securing suitable private support for key areas of our work. I think by being proactive and communicating well about what you are trying to achieve, you actually encourage government to support and keep funding you. You also create a broader base of support that helps to build security for the future."

As the former Head of Development at the National Portrait Gallery, Naomi draws a parallel with her old work. “I think where National Parks are now is similar to where the museums sector was 15 years ago when it had to start adjusting its funding model due to changes in levels of government support.  The result has been positive - there are now hundreds of successful corporate partnerships within the arts sector, bringing huge benefits to audiences across the UK."

Values

Veteran outdoor activist and BMC Peak Area Access Coordinator Henry Folkard thinks commercial sponsorship can work, up to a point: “It’s quite legitimate that national parks should look around for new sources of funding provided they don’t lose sight of why they’re there, their statutory purposes. The need to generate financial opportunities shouldn’t overwhelm their original aims. There are values that aren’t financial.”

What’s certain is that in the future public perception of national parks is likely to change. They look set to move from being seen as relatively passive bodies, whose purposes most people are only dimly aware of, to becoming much more business-minded ‘brands’ with an ambition to ‘market themselves’ in the wider world.

Where does that leave us, ‘recreational users’? What role do we have to play in this new future?

In the past we may have taken national parks for granted. But at a time when corporations and companies are likely to be an increasingly important part of the picture, it is all the more important that we make our presence felt. National parks are ours to enjoy; and ours to help care for. 

If you have any thoughts, comments and ideas after reading this article, let us know your thoughts below or email us.

For more information about National Parks Partnerships visit www.nationalparks.co.uk

This article is part of a three part series on the future of national parks following on from the Mend Our Mountains campaign. The next article will look at how walkers, climbers and other outdoor users can rise to the challenge of protecting precious landscapes and shaping their future.


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2
05/07/2016
Great article. Important that the outdoor community are aware & engaged with this change - after all, we are the consumers of the outdoors. Yes, we need to be sure the non-financial values are protected. But talk of Disneyfication and nightmare scenarios is probably unwarranted - we're on the same team here, and greater public awareness of and love for our National Parks is good, good, good.
2) Anonymous User
27/08/2016
What I am seeing is that our National Park, Snowdonia, is being Urbanised; bridges are being placed over streams which used to be fun to cross by boulder hopping, paths are being made to make rough areas easier to walk over, rugged areas are no longer rugged in case someone falls over. In fifty years time the adventure we had in the fifties and sixties will have vanished.

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