The Stanage Forum

Posted by Henry Folkard on 07/05/2002
Stanage. Photo: BMC.

Funny things happen on the way to the Forum. By Henry Folkard

What have 1400 routes and 8 pairs of Ring Ouzels got in common? Answer: Stanage - and if you don’t know what a Ring Ouzel is, go to the bottom of the class. What has been described as a World Heritage Site for climbing and bouldering and is a SSSI and SPA for its moorland assemblage? Answer: Stanage, and if you don’t know what a moorland assemblage is, you get a detention. And what have Ring Ouzels, and SPA’s got to do with mountaineering, climbing or walking? Answer- very little. Wrong. You’ve just been banned. No more play for you.

Many people care passionately about Stanage. That much is common ground. What is your passion? A wilderness area’, the best gritstone climbing in the world? Or is it a working farm; the backdrop to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, just the place to study Romano British field patterns; a trans Pennine short cut; a specially protected and internationally important habitat? Who shares all of those passions - who indeed shares more than two. Where there is conflict between those passions who decides their relative values, and how?

That was the question facing Matthew Croney, a Peak District National Park Land Agent. He has the job of writing a ten year management plan for the National Park Authority’s North Lees Estate. He believed the old approach, of drafting a plan before asking for comment from main partner organisations, had not worked well in the past, and would not work at all in the future. His new approach, supported by senior National Park Officers and the Park Management Committee, would be to ask the people who used the place what they thought about it. He would convene an open meeting - a Forum - to which everyone who wanted to come could come. The Stanage Forum would value every user’s vision, resolve conflict not by decree but by discussion, promote shared understanding and create a management plan that would work.

There was clearly risk in this approach. How would the Authority react if the Forum proposed actions which conflicted with its stated policies? How would BMC members react if compromise resulted in a worse deal for climbers? There was cynicism too. Some thought there were no real problems, only those created by bureaucrats, Bracken and bureaucracy. Get rid of both and leave the place to the climbers! Others questioned the point of a talk shop. The Authority had a mind of its own and at the end of the day would surely do its own thing. Would English Nature hide behind the alphabet of legal designations of which only ecologists seem aware?

What about the Highways Authority? It is they and not the National Park Authority who are responsible for the roads, and it is actually what has happened to the roads at Stanage and Burbage and Toads Mouth and Surprise View that has really annoyed everyone you ever spoke to. Why bother with a Forum? Why indeed - because, the BMC reasoned, the alternative might be living with what others had decided about us. If we could not argue our own case, whom could we expect to do it for us?

The first Forum was held in August 2000, and since then there have been two more. The process, broadly speaking, has been to invite those present to say what they most valued about Stanage; to identify where visions were complementary and where there was potential for conflict and to agree, within small groups, possible solutions. These might reconcile opposing views and provide a framework for a new management plan. The anticipation was that a plan would be produced by July 2001. The first Forum proposed a Steering Group to process their proposals in between plenary sessions, the task was to be essentially about process, not about fighting corners. It was anticipated this Steering Group might meet three or four times and call upon technical experts if such input was needed. Sixteen members were elected. Dave Turnbull, (then Access and Conservation Officer for the BMC and now its Chief Officer) and I were among them. We, and the others - a local Councillor, local farmers, mountain bikers, bird watchers, disabled representatives, ramblers, hang gliders, estate workers and the like - had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. We had no right to expect the task to be easy, and it has not been. It has been pretty acrimonious on occasion. It is now March 2002. The task is not complete (though there are about 50 pages of recommendations including 150 agreed proposals) and there have been over 30 Steering plus Technical Group meetings.

Though there has been fair degree of consensus the task has grown in the doing. Steering Group members care about Stanage. Their views as to how it should be safeguarded have sometimes been diametrically opposed. Matthew Croney’s style has been to let people have their say - which they have done, and often more than once. The most contentious issues have been about parking and Ring Ouzels, of which more anon. Is everything else now hunky-dorey? No, not quite. Mountain bikers may feel they have got little from the process, and the view that motorised vehicles of any sort are wholly incompatible with the wilderness experience so valued by the vast majority of people who use Stanage will not please trial bikers or four wheel drive enthusiasts. We have proposed improved public transport links, but funding is problematic. We have recommended improvements to the road side landscape by the removal of bunding and those brutish wooden posts set at just the right height to catch a horse’s shin or pitch a cyclist over the wall. Ramblers have argued for small but significant changes to some footpaths and fell runners will be asked to vary some routes. Derbyshire Soaring Club have negotiated a new agreement on behalf of all pilots which permits two all year take off and landing sites for hang and para gliders. A series of land management measures have been agreed with Broomfield College, who farm the Estate. On parking there were strong arguments that you do not discourage car use by making it easy for people to park, and that where people can use a car, they will.

Why would you want to discourage car use in the first place? Well because that’s what many people at the Forum wanted - a car free landscape was their vision - and because pollution from cars causes environmental damage and because sheep get regularly killed by them. There was also the not so small matter of income generation. A fee for parking is one way of meeting this real need. Pay and Display is and will increasingly become the norm in the National Park, so why should Stanage be different? The BMC did not favour Pay and Display because it believed there was no real alternative way of getting there for many visitors, because having it could perversely create more traffic problems, more parking problems and more little paths; and because ease of parking in designated sites can limit damage to other more environmentally sensitive areas. In the event the Park Management Committee agreed a Steering Group recommendation not to extend Pay and Display to Burbage North, Cabin Track, Hooks Carr and Dennis Knowle, and to retain overspill facility in the Dale. But there will be two boxes for voluntary donations. The BMC would encourage members to contribute.

Then there is the most contentious issue of all - yes, it’s those Ring Ouzels (the mountain blackbird) again. Aha, you say, I’ve never seen one. That’s rather the point. There are not many to see, and local ornithologists, supported by the RSPB, are passionately keen to ensure everything that can possibly be done is done to protect the last remaining significant breeding population in the National Park - eight pairs in 2001. They hope that with such protection the Estate might hold as many as ten pairs - they never nest in particularly high densities. Conflict arises because boulderers have something in common with Ring Ouzels - they like the same places, especially when those places are between the Rim and the Cowper Stone. Recreational use is not however a common factor in the widespread decline of the Ring Ouzel. The BMC does not believe climbing, bouldering or walking present a major threat to moorland assemblages of breeding birds. Indeed the ornithologists allow that the problem they see at Stanage is not so much that recreational pressure will stop the birds nesting, but rather that it may stop them nesting in prime sites. As part of the Forum process a site meeting took place on a raw and murky snow covered moor in early January 2002.

There was agreement on a range of measures to improve habitat requirements for the birds. This means some change in land management, reduction in sheep numbers and protection of key feeding areas on land between the Edge and the road by fencing out small areas of bilberry. People will be asked to keep to the main paths from Burbage North, Cabin Track and Hooks Carr parking areas, and not to walk along the base of the Edge between bouldering areas. Additionally, there will be a request that people avoid using the lower path from Hooks Carr which leads broadly from the parking area to Congo Corner. This path is more generally used in descent. Some, perhaps with good cause, may fear a progression they have seen before: first erect the biggest fence you can, then find a way to prohibit access within it. They may find any compromise which involves fencing of open country as highly objectionable, aesthetically unappealing and at odds with the spirit of the CRoW Act.

The BMC was not prepared to endorse any restriction on bouldering. We agreed to represent the RSPB’s views, which are strongly supported by local ornithologists. You have seen them at the top of this article. Feelings run high. It is a pity that what might be a source of pride - a pretty special collection of moorland birds - should become a source of conflict. Surely it does not have to be like that. Are climbers the natural allies of conservationists or are they only and always hell bent on the destruction of wilderness and wildlife in the quest to climb? The two interests need not be mutually exclusive. There are more imaginative approaches to conservation than the blanket ban.

Perhaps this issue has been the most testing for the Forum. It has certainly strained relationships within the Steering Group. Even if there is a sense that each side remains dumbfounded by their perception of complete intransigence on the part of the other, the commitment to dialogue has been maintained. To preserve what we value, we have to learn and understand what others value - and so indeed must others learn and understand what we value. It’s been a rough ride, and there will be more to come, but it is difficult to see that any other approach could have produced a better outcome.

It is seventy years since Benny Rothman and others were sent to prison for their part in the celebrated Kinder Mass Trespass. We all owe to them the freedom of access we now enjoy. We also owe it to them to safeguard that freedom. Seventy years on the Stanage Forum promises a way forward.

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