Is it time for a South Pennines regional park

A walker enjoys the view overlooking the wild fells of the South Penines (Steve Morgan).
A walker enjoys the view overlooking the wild fells of the South Penines (Steve Morgan).
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The South Pennines has stunning scenery and a rich history that campaigners want to see recognised along with the creation of a regional park. Chris Bond reports.

The South Pennines form part of a ridge of hills between the Peak District and the Yorkshire Dales national parks which help make up the backbone of this country.

It is home to a treasure trove of natural wonders including sweeping moorlands and wild peaty hilltops as well as historic gritstone settlements.

The dramatic landscape here has inspired countless writers and artists down the years from Ted Hughes and the Brontës to, more recently, Ben Myers and Ashley Jackson.

But for all its dramatic scenery and rich industrial heritage, the South Pennines is the only upland landscape in England not protected as a national park or area of outstanding natural beauty - something local campaigners would like to see changed.

Pennine Prospects - the rural regeneration agency for the South Pennines - is calling on the Government to review the value of all distinctive landscapes in England, whether they’re currently designated or not.

Earlier this year the Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced there would be a review, led by the writer Julian glover, into the country’s natural landscapes.

It’s nearly 70 years since the first national areas were created and Mr Gove felt it was time to “look afresh at these landscapes” - the review will consider whether to expand England’s network of parks as well as areas of outstanding natural beauty.

In the South Pennines, though, there’s a feeling that the area has been overshadowed by higher profile neighbours like the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District.

“The South Pennines was listed as a landscape worthy of designation in the Dower and Hobhouse reports of the 1940s,” says Pam Warhurst, chairwoman of Pennine Prospects.

“That’s why we want to see an inclusive approach to the review and one that is mindful of those distinctive landscapes that have not been afforded the highest level of protection.”

The South Pennines is uniquely positioned stretching as it does into both Yorkshire and Lancashire and is home to a string of historic towns and villages including Hebden Bridge and Haworth.

It’s also a haven for rare wildlife and species of birds such as the twite, merlin and short-eared owl.

“After 70 years of campaigning we look forward to a review that explores improving the environment and the economy hand in hand,” says Warhurst. “I hope that the panel is brave enough to explore innovative and inclusive approaches that put people at the heart of their landscape. Do we need a statutory designation, or is there a different way to look after our unique areas?”

Helen Noble, chief executive of Pennine Prospects, says the debate around our landscapes and how they are managed is an important one.

“Back in the 1940s when the authorities were looking at our national parks and whether they should be protected or not, the South Pennines was part of that discussion and much of the focus was on its industrial heritage alongside the natural beauty of the area. But because of that heritage it was deemed too industrial to merit that status so it missed out.”

It’s a debate that has continued to this day and Noble believes the area is no less significant than those surrounding it.

“The South Pennines boundary pushes the Yorkshire Dales to the north and the Peak District to the south and I would dare anyone to stand on the boundary between the Peak District and the South Pennines and say what the difference is. There’s no difference.”

As part of its campaign Pennine Prospects is working on a plan to create the South Pennines Regional Park which, Noble says, would help champion the area.

“It’s about promoting the rich heritage that the South Pennines has, the canals, rivers and reservoirs and the moorlands and all the history that we have on our doorstep. This is an area with such a rich industrial heritage alongside the cultural heritage of the Brontës and writers and poets like Simon Armitage.”

The idea is that creating a park would help highlight environmental issues and the importance of the uplands in improving carbon capture, flood mitigation and rich habitats.

It would also encourage investment in the local economies and help tap into a ready made audience. “We’ve got eight million people who live in and around the South Pennines, we’re the largest conurbation outside of London.

“There’s Greater Manchester and Lancashire to the West and to the North is West Yorkshire, with places like Leeds and Bradford, and Sheffield to the South - they’re all within an hour’s journey of the South Pennines.

“The rural economy is very important and one of the key factors, as well as agriculture, is tourism which brings visitors and money here,” she says.

“We’re very proud of our local distinctiveness, for instance we’ve got the largest density of public rights of way in the country - there’s over 2,000 miles of public rights of way.

“We already have visitors coming here but having our own brand, like the Lakes, the Dales and the Peak District, would help raise the profile and attract even more people here.”

Critics might ask why this can’t be done without creating a regional park and all that this may entail. “What we’re looking at is a brand. Can it be done without it? Yes, but at the moment we almost work in isolation. There are local authorities branding their own areas and we cover 13 administrative areas so if we work collaboratively and engage with the communities there it will bring a sense of ownership and value, and that’s what’s important about this,” explains Noble.

“We are a designated landscape in so far as we are designated under Natural England’s Natural Character area, but the profile of that isn’t really known so calling us the ‘South Pennines Park’ or the ‘South Pennines Regional Park’ raises it to a much wider audience.”

Noble feels this is a watershed moment in terms of the future of the landscape and how it’s sustainably managed by the people that live there.

“I don’t think we’ve been neglected but I think we’re a bit of a hidden gem and what it would bring if we had recognition as a park is it would help bring more investment into the area and that in turn helps raise the profile, and that’s what we’re looking at - not only putting it on the regional map but on the national and international map,” she says.

“Sitting alongside the Peak District we’re a gateway to the North. We’ve got the Pennine Way, the first national trail, running through here and it would be nice to be recognised as a network of uplands and a network of these precious landscapes that we value so much.”

Protecting our natural treasures

England has 10 existing national parks including the Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors and the Lake District.

It also has more than 30 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) - places designated for conservation due to their significant landscape value.

The Government’s review will look at our network of parks. A Defra spokesperson said: “We want to make sure our treasured landscapes are not only conserved, but enhanced for the next generation. This is why the Environment Secretary recently launched a review into our National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

“As part of this, the review will be looking at the case for extension or creation of new designated areas.”