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Britain’s National Parks – a happy birthday?

By Ian Tant, President of the RTPI 2019

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.

Throughout 2019, during my time as RTPI President, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many of our National Parks and the experience has been never less than fascinating. You might think they would share many common characteristics but what I’ve seen and heard is just how varied and individual the Parks and their issues can be.

Glover Review

I wrote a blog post earlier in the year following the publication of the interim report of the independent Glover Review. My most recent visits and discussions with Planning Officers, Chief Executives and Board members came soon after the publication of the final report in September.

In order to streamline the protection of the Parks and provide enhanced protection for AONBs, the Glover Review proposes a single national service for our national landscapes, essentially with planning alone being devolved to the local level. Those I spoke to in the Parks had mixed views. Their disquiet stems from the widely differing character and circumstances of the English Parks (Welsh Parks, like those in Scotland, are governed under devolved powers and not directly affected by the review).

The RTPI submitted evidence to the Glover Review saying that the challenges of climate change mean that National Parks and AONBs need to be managed within the context of a wider land use strategy that responds fully to the need for deep decarbonisation and adaptation to the impacts of a changing climate. National Park and AONB authorities require sufficient staffing, financial resources, and access to training and expertise to achieve this.

Differences in land management

The Parks are all working landscapes and indeed working places. The importance of each lies in the way that human activity, including farming, has influenced and affected the landscape over generations. However, the land management practices differ park-by-park. In the Lakes, hill farming is the primary contributor to landscape maintenance and there are fears for its future through Brexit and the potential impact on subsidies and tariffs. In the North York Moors, grazing is also important but the primary income appears to come through shooting estates and its related practices. In Exmoor, shooting is increasingly prevalent but is a source of concern rather than protection. In the Peak District, grazing of the moorland is already in decline, largely as a result of fading interest among a younger generation of hill farmers.

These differences are reflected in the current planning policies of the Park Authorities and there is a view that it’s important to maintain a link between land management and planning under whatever structures arise from the Glover Review.

Housing pressures

A similar rainbow of issues arises in the housing pressures faced by the Parks. The Lake District is sufficiently accessible to metropolitan areas to the south for second home ownership to be a major challenge in maintaining an active workforce and yet there are few urban areas nearby where a lower paid workforce might live. In the Peak District and to a degree Dartmoor, the issue is reversed: with large cities on their doorsteps, these Parks have far greater opportunities to access more affordable housing within a reasonable travel distance but this doesn’t help those such as farm workers who must live and work in the Parks and have to compete with the better-off who can afford to make the Parks their home and commute out to work in the cities. Such is the pressure in Dartmoor that villages have taken matters into their own hands: Chagford, for example, has encouraged the release of a site of nearly 100 dwellings to help sustain the community and meet local needs.

In Exmoor, the problem is different again. Second homes are increasingly becoming first homes with London buyers snapping up farmhouses, living in them throughout the year but staying for a few days a week in city apartments. This pushes up house prices in this relatively remote Park which has few towns or villages within reach. However, it also impacts on land management with the new owners letting out the surrounding farmland on generally short, five-year tenancies. In these circumstances, neither owners nor tenants have much incentive to invest in the farm.

Short term farming tenancies are also an issue in the South Downs, which experiences housing pressures from the constrained urban areas on the coast to its south and from London to the north. While unable to assist significantly in meeting needs arising outside the Park, the Park Authority is however brave in accepting the need for well-considered development, as I saw in the sizable enabling development at the King Edward VII Estate near Midhurst.

Local distinctiveness

Throughout the Parks, planners are working closely with their Park management colleagues to address the individual pressures that each Park experiences. The Glover Review is correct to recognise the need for investment in the services that protect our nationally important landscapes but local distinctiveness should not be overlooked in developing new planning approaches.

So Happy 70th Birthday to our National Parks: may they long be cherished by Government as much as they are by local people and visitors. And here’s to their accomplished protectors, the National Park Authorities, for whom planning is so important.

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