Resisting threats to our treasured landscapes

Campaigners for the National Parks are anxious for the future. Roger Ratcliffe reports on their 75th anniversary

At first glance, it seems odd that the Campaign for National Parks should be marking its 75th birthday when the law which first created them was passed more than 60 years ago.

Hadn’t its crusade been a success? Is there still a need for such a campaign?

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The answer to both questions is a resounding “yes”, according to the CNP’s Ruth Chambers. For despite the principle of the parks being established all those years ago, the threats to many of their ideals have never gone away. The job is far from over.

Quarrying companies still crave the vast reserves of minerals. Power generators eye those breezy uplands as ideal sites for wind farms Huge tracts of remote fellside look just the place to plant tens of thousands of regimented conifers. Picture-postcard dales and villages are coveted by operators of static caravan sites.

The pressures on Britain’s wild and largely unspoilt landscapes did not end in 1949 with the passing of the Act of Parliament which created them.

And so the CNP – formed in 1936 from such diverse groups as the Ramblers Association, the Commons Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, the Cyclists Touring Club, and the Youth Hostels Association – did not wind up.

It has remained in existence as the eyes and ears of the pioneers who long ago led the fight for National Parks.

And it has been at the forefront of many famous battles, not least the CNP’s campaign against potash quarrying on the north-east side of the North York Moors National Park, a test case that set the tone for future government policy.

Other notable victories include stopping a major road-building plan in the Peak District and the introduction of a 10mph speed limit for powered boats on Windermere, and halting the growth of Ministry of Defence exercise ranges in the Northumberland National Park.

The parks were the vision of a Yorkshireman named John Dower. His surveys of rural England and Wales before and during the Second World War produced a report which the Government used as the basis for the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and the creation of the first 10 parks.

But there was unfinished business – other areas which Dower said cried out for protection but missed out first time round.

So the CNP continued its campaign, and the “family” grew to include the New Forest and South Downs, while National Park-like protection was extended to the Norfolk Broads.

Now there’s a chance that the Yorkshire Dales National Parks will be extended on its western fringes, and the Lake District National Park extended on its south-east side.

The board of the government’s outdoors agency, Natural England, decided on Wednesday to continue with the plan after a consultation exercise which suggested good public support, though some local council misgivings.

Ruth Chambers, who is deputy chief executive and head of policy at the CNP, believes the proposals may eventually be decided by a public inquiry.

But if the extensions are finally achieved, she says, in the current economic climate she doubts there will be any new National Parks for years to come.

Hopes still remain that one day the Cambrian Mountains of mid-Wales may join the family, although the North Pennines – once mooted as ripe for National Park status – appears to have slipped off the agenda.

“But if one day the North Pennines were to be looked at as a National Park”, says Ruth, “then I think it ought to be done in a much more ambitious way because of its proximity to the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland National Parks.

“Joining them both together with the North Pennines would no doubt run into all sorts of issues and debates about the cultural identities of the areas.

”That, of course, would be important. But from a landscape, wildlife conservation and public access point of view, it would probably give the biggest bangs for your bucks.”

The key motivation for this might be that National Parks have been suggested as the best ways of allowing biodiversity networks to spread. A “corridor” that runs almost continuously from Yorkshire to the Scottish border would be an ideal wildlife conduit.

No-one is seriously talking along these lines at the moment, Ruth stresses. It is on this much larger scale that future generations may see the development of National Parks.

Before then, however, there are new threats to the parks on the horizon, not least the cut of approximately one-third in their funds as a result of the Government’s spending review – “definitely the greatest challenge the National Parks have had to face this century,” according to Ruth.

They are mostly putting on a brave face, she says. Their standard response – that they’ve just go to deal with it – is the right one, she reckons. But there’s no doubt that every aspect of their service is going to be affected.

“They aren’t autocratic bodies; they are small organisations which don’t have much money to play with in the first place.

“So slashing their budgets to this extent is obviously going to have a massive impact and ultimately impact on the people who really care about the parks, whether as visitors or in local communities.”

There are also some planning issues threatening individual parks.

On the eastern edge of the North York Moors, for example, there’s a suggestion that a new potash mine may be developed.

And in the Lake District, there’s likely to be a problem with electricity pylons if Sellafield is chosen as the site for one of the next generation of nuclear power stations.

Ben Fogle, CNP’s president, says: “National Parks are our ‘green’ national treasures, and it’s vital that they remain so.

“At CNP, we want the nation to appreciate the parks’ wide-open spaces, wildness and natural beauty, to enjoy their culture and warm hospitality and to understand the threats that they face and what we can all do to look after them.

“They are vulnerable landscapes and there is no better way to protect them than by getting out and enjoying them.”