John Gardiner: Dawn of a new era for National Parks

FROM the stirring poetry of WH Auden to the warm comedy of James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small, the rugged beauty of the Yorkshire Dales runs like a rich seam through our nation's cultural heritage.

The Yorkshire Dales now extends into the Lake District.

It is a jewel in the crown of the British countryside, and whether it is the challenging Three Peaks, the flower-rich hay meadows or ancient broad-leaf woodland, it is a beacon for visitors across the country and furtherabroad.

That is why I am so pleased the Yorkshire Dales National Park, along with the Lake District National Park, have today expanded their boundaries for the first time, protecting an extra 200 square miles of some of the world’s most stunning landscapes.

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This is an area bigger than the Isle of Wight which will create England’s largest stretch of almost continuous National Park.

The Dales area already attracts 9.3 million visits every year and generates £605m for our economy. This rises to 26 million and £1.8bn if you include the Lakes. From the historic Sizergh Castle to the delightful village of Orton, I hope this will encourage thousands more people to come and enjoy these beautiful areas.

The success of our National Parks is a story told across the country – they attract 90 million visitors a year and contribute £4bn to our growing economy. They are an important part of our national identity and I want to open up these world-class cultural attractions to a much bigger audience – both at home and on an international scale. That is why we will be promoting these uniquely British environments around the globe through the GREAT campaign and why, closer to home, we’ll be sending the message that the North is open for business.

In doing so, I want to increase annual visitor numbers to 100 million, bringing an extra £440m to local businesses.

These are impressive figures that translate to cash in the tills of small businesses, jobs for local people and investment in infrastructure.

Not only are our National Parks important for our nation’s economic health but they greatly benefit our physical and mental wellbeing.

Research from Natural England shows taking part in nature-based activities can reduce anxiety, stress and depression. Encouraging children to get outside and get active is also key to tackling long-term problems like obesity.

The opportunities for getting outdoors are huge, with over two thirds of people in England now living within half an hour of a National Park or an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It is really important that people take advantage of what is on their doorstep. Only by connecting with our local environment will we be able to benefit from the value of these national treasures and make sure they are protected for generations to come.

This will also protect the haven for many of our most important plants and animals. In the Dales alone there are more than 1,000 species of moths, 100 species of nesting birds, and over 25 species of butterflies. There is even a species of moss that grows nowhere else in the world.

Only by protecting, enhancing and investing in the natural environment will we become a more prosperous nation with better life chances for our children and grandchildren. To unlock this potential, we need a long-term vision.

The UK has always been a world leader in environment protection, whether it was our role in combatting acid rain or, more recently, the climate change negotiations in Paris.

At home, we have ambitious manifesto commitments to plant a further 11 million trees, improve our air quality and create a ‘blue belt’ to protect our marine habitats.

We are currently working on a 25 Year Environment Plan – an open, forward-looking approach that will safeguard the future of our environment for generations to come. The expansion of the Dales and Lakes is just one step on this road, and I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the landowners and farmers, and all countryside managers, for their stewardship of this glorious part of the United Kingdom.

There is more to be done to make Britain a cleaner, greener and heathier place to live and work. As we look to the future, it is vital that we harness the knowledge, experience and common sense of local people – you know Yorkshire and its environment better than anyone else. I look forward to working with all who make such a contribution to the National Parks as we look to protect and improve our environment for generations to come.

Lord Gardiner of Kimble is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.