2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act and, indeed, in my first six months as RTPI President, I’ve been visiting a number of our National Parks. A few things have struck me which I’d like to share here, some of which are echoed in the interim report of the Government’s Glover Review of protected landscapes.
North York Moors
The Glover Review covers more than just national parks – it is an examination of all our designated landscapes, covering Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other designations.
The interim report says: “We should not be satisfied with what we have at the moment. It falls short of what can be achieved, what the people of our country want and what the government says it expects in the 25-year plan for the environment…. Some of this failure comes from the fact that our protected landscapes have not been given the tools, the funding and the direction to do the job we should now expect of them.”
Each of our National Parks is distinctive for geological, topographical, geographical or economic reasons. The Lake District, North Yorkshire Moors, Snowdonia and the Peak District are all fabulous places to visit for unique reasons and each has inspiring examples of planning at its very best.
There are challenges, however, many of which are shared across the Parks. In the case of the three Welsh Parks and those in Scotland, these protected landscapes are governed under devolved powers and are not directly affected by the Glover Review. Nevertheless, there are shared issues and some common lessons to be drawn.
As Glover pointed out, resourcing is a common challenge.. While the Peak District’s planning team has remained generally well funded (and has retained its specialist staff in conservation, for example), most have faced difficult cuts to staff. In Snowdonia, the difficulties of running the service are accentuated by the need to recruit people who can speak (or speedily learn to speak) Welsh – the first language in the north west of the country.
Brexit is a major threat to several of the Parks where hill farming is an essential component of land management and indeed, has been largely responsible for the historic character of large parts of the Lake District and Snowdonia.
In the Lakes, I was told the Park was already losing shepherds and sheep breeding is at risk with the stocking rates falling, including in the special breeds of Herdwick, Rough Fell and Blackwood. Unless the Government is able to fully maintain access to markets and replace European subsidies without bureaucratic or legislative delay, there is a risk of catastrophic loss of such agriculture. Diversification is possible but the lack of high speed broadband is a serious constraint on economic activity in remote locations.
Permitted Development Rights are a further challenge with recent changes (which don’t apply in Wales) ignoring the special significance of the Parks and the serious implications of uncontrolled changes for landscape and special character. Whilst Ministers might view PDR as small scale changes, it is these very small scale developments and intricate changes that form the core of planning in the Parks. The loss of control puts at risk the broader efforts to maintain quality in design and development.
Housing affordability is a widespread issue. The National Parks are working landscapes and depend on retaining a resident workforce for sectors such as farming. In the Lakes, second home ownership has deprived local people of their ability to stay in the Park, which faces a serious shortage of labour.
In one village, 78% of the housing stock is made up of second or holiday homes, effectively precluding any chance of maintaining village shops and services throughout the year. In Snowdonia, it’s Airbnb that’s the problem, pricing rental properties out of the reach of local workers. In the Peak District, surrounded by major cities, the problem is primary home ownership, with commuters outbidding local people.
Extractive industries pose the greatest scale of change in the Parks. Several of the landscapes have been moulded by quarrying (iron and potash in the North Yorkshire Moors, slate in Snowdonia, stone in the Peak District), but proposals for extended or additional activity pose major challenges in reconciling economic need (including the retention of jobs) with the protection of these special places.
I’ve also seen first hand how the Parks are embracing climate action with several seeking more sustainable modes of transport for visitors. In the Peak District, a new bus service, the Hope Valley Explorer, is being introduced and there are plans for a cross-park cycle trail that will connect railway stations to the east and west. In the Lakes, there are ideas for electric ‘pods’ to transport walkers between new, well-located car parks and key walking trails higher up the valleys.
Everywhere I went, new technologies are being introduced to provide sustainable sources of space heating for buildings – air source pumps, ground source pumps and biomass boilers - with varying levels of success.
Despite all the challenges, the planners in our National Parks are delivering remarkable results with passion and determination. New resources and new powers would undoubtedly help. We should all await the final report in the Glover Review this autumn with keen interest – and hope that the Government acts on its findings.