Land sell offs: the end of national parks as we know them?

Posted by Hanna Lindon on 25/02/2015
Stickle Tarn: landscapes like this deserve to be protected. Photo by S J Francis/ Shutterstock.

Land sell-offs in English national parks have caused widespread public concern, including a petition with 75,000 signatures and counting. But do they mean the end of national parks as we know them? We take a look at the broader issues behind the sale of places like Stickle Tarn.

The news that Stickle Tarn is among seven sites to be sold off by the Lake District NPA has once again placed the spotlight on public land sales. A 38 Degrees petition to ‘save our national parks’ has gained 75,000 signatures and is rapidly rising, while a petition to stop the Lake District sales has garnered 6,300. 

The idea that iconic national beauty spots can be auctioned off en-masse clearly sits uncomfortably with the public – but what is actually going on here? Do sell-offs spell the end of national parks? Is all public land under threat? And do the national park authorities really have a choice?

“Personally, I don’t think it’s anything the national park authorities are doing wrong,” says campaigner and BMC Access Management Group (AMG) member Ruth Chambers. “It’s an inevitable consequence of ever-tightening public funding for these areas.

“The Lake District tends to get all the publicity because it’s such an iconic area, but the 38 Degrees petition also mentions eight areas being sold in the Yorkshire Dales. Land sales have already been mooted in the Peak District – the BMC was involved with possible changes to areas such as Stanage and the Roaches. Other parks have also done something similar, or will be doing, because unless the government increases national park funding there will only be one direction of travel.”

The Lake District NPA has seen its budget cut by 23 per cent since 2010, but it isn’t the only national park authority to be feeling the pinch. Snowdonia reacted to its newly straightened circumstances by announcing plans to axe jobs last spring and Dartmoor is considering plans to raise charges across its car parks. Selling off land to boost income and reduce management costs is a route that many national parks may soon have to take.

The consequences of sell-offs

The sell off of public land in treasured places will always cause consternation - but are the consequences as bad as many seem to believe? 

Martin Curry, the Lake District NPA’s property services manager, argues that the sale of sites like Stickle Tarn will have little implication in practice. “Less than 4 per cent of land in the national park is actually owned by the NPA,” he says, “so land doesn’t have to be owned by us in order to be protected. Any properties we sell will either be sold with their existing access or with strengthened public access. And all the property that is CRoW access land will obviously continue to be open for access.”

The BMC, however, feels that publically owned land has been acquired for the benefit of the nation and that it should continue to be owned and cared for by public bodies. “The result of these sell-offs could be that land which is currently enjoyed by the public is appropriated for some other purpose, or that the quality of its natural features and public access diminishes or is not secured,” explains Dr Catherine Flitcroft, the BMC’s Access and Conservation Officer. 

Ruth Chambers also points out that many people will object to treasured land leaving public ownership on principle. “It’s something that strikes at the heart of public concern for the countryside,” she says. 

Setting some ground rules

If budget cuts make the sale of NPA-owned land unavoidable, though, then what’s the answer? The option favoured by the BMC is to ensure that only a responsible public body such as the National Trust is permitted to purchase NPA-owned land. Another possible alternative is to attach stringent conditions to public land sales, ensuring that future owners would manage the land appropriately. Jan Darrall, policy officer at Friends of the Lake District, is urging that such conditions be applied in the case of Stickle Tarn and the other six LDNPA-owned properties.

“We would be concerned if the change to the LDNPA’s property portfolio resulted in land being held for commercial or operational reasons only, and not for the reasons national parks were originally set up – to conserve and enhance their natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, and to promote opportunities for their understanding and enjoyment by the public,” she says. “Friends of the Lake District is eager to ensure that future owners of the sale properties understand, and are in sympathy with, the use of the land for national park purposes, and are committed to managing the land in a way that protects the Lake District landscape for generations to come. Therefore, we have requested conditions are attached to the sale of the land that reflect this commitment to long-term stewardship for the future.”

Another way?

Budget increases for national parks would remove the need for public land to be sold off - but in reality, national park authorities are more likely to face another round of cuts. Should the LDNPA be looking at alternative ways of raising funds?

Most options currently being explored by national parks across the country have a controversial element. Cutting staff numbers, scrapping maintenance schemes, charging for facilities such as car parks and toilets, encouraging greater private sector involvement and leasing assets are all possible – if unpalatable – alternatives. And there are other avenues of funding that have as yet been only speculatively mooted.

“One of many new funding directions would be a tourism tax as applied in many areas of the world already,” suggests Mike Parsons, the BMC’s Lakes Area Chair. “We need to explore new funding sources like this to protect our much-loved land areas, which will otherwise be sold off to fund LDNPA expenses.”

Another option being explored by some national parks and other public organisations is 'visitor payback'. The concept is that tourists and visitors (which naturally includes any walkers and climbers staying in the area) are encouraged to donate a small amount of additional money during their stay - money that goes directly towards conservation and heritage projects. Nurture Lakeland raised over £100,000 through its Visitor Giving scheme in 2013/2014 and Snowdonia has mooted the idea of a similar system. Perhaps encouraging visitors to put something back into the places they love could help shore up our beleaguered national parks. But is this just another way of taxing the public to make up the shortfall caused by funding cuts? 

The bigger picture

All this scrabbling around for extra money may be considered ironic, as national parks and protected areas themselves have been shown to be some of the biggest revenue generators of all. 

A recent Cambridge University study in PLOS Biology (BBC article) found that the world's national parks and nature reserves receive eight billion tourists a year and generate $600 billion of revenue, while only costing $10 billion to maintain.

The study also found that of the world's 10 most visited protected areas, an astonishing five were in England. 

Perhaps instead of forcing parks to tinker around imposing a tax here and a parking charge there, the government should recognise the true value of our national parks and support them accordingly. 

What do you think?

Does the sale of public land concern you? Would you rather see national park-owned land in private hands than face higher charges for car parks and toilets? Can you think of a better way to bridge funding gaps? We want to hear your views.

Leave your comments below or tweet us @team_BMC.

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