The Government is guilty of shameful neglect of our national parks - Andrew Vine

Our national parks are in the midst of their first really busy week of the year, with schools shut for the Easter break and families heading for the wide-open spaces that are the very essence of Yorkshire.

The grandeur of the Dales and the ruggedness of the North Yorkshire Moors are magnets for hundreds of thousands of people every year, as is the Peak District, just over the border in Derbyshire but embracing the outskirts of Sheffield.

But how many of the families setting out for a walk, or enjoying a picnic amid the glorious scenery of these wonderful places realise just how under threat they are from the systematic and short-sighted starvation of funds to maintain them?

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Certainly, not enough. They ought to be aware, though and demanding the Government acts to safeguard the future of national parks instead of pursuing a policy that has undermined them for well over a decade.

Castleton in the North York Moors National Park. PIC: Tony JohnsonCastleton in the North York Moors National Park. PIC: Tony Johnson
Castleton in the North York Moors National Park. PIC: Tony Johnson

The extent of the financial crisis engulfing some of our region’s most precious and beloved landscapes is starkly illustrated by rumbling disputes between the North York Moors and Yorkshire Dales national park authorities and councils over the cost of maintaining footpaths.

The park authorities want councils to stump up more money for the work, but those councils are resisting because they are under such appalling financial pressures.

It would be wrong to point a finger of blame at either side because this is a dispute that has been forced on them by circumstances not of their making.

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It speaks volumes about the financial plight of the park authorities and councils that after decades of working harmoniously together for the benefit of the countryside, they find themselves at loggerheads.

Meanwhile, footpaths fall into disrepair, which is not good for the natural environment and makes access more difficult for visitors and the people who live and work in the parks.

The villain in these disputes is the Government, which is guilty of shameful neglect of national parks, virtually ignoring them except when election time rolls around and they provide a charming backdrop for photo opportunities.

The extent of that neglect is laid bare by the budgets of Britain’s 15 parks. Since 2010, they have suffered a 40 per cent real terms drop in their funding while costs have risen relentlessly.

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Despite that catastrophic failure of funding, the parks are expected to play a key role in tackling climate change, preserve fragile natural environments and accommodate 80m visitors a year.

This is an impossible position for them to be placed in. Yet the Government first refused to listen and then made a derisory response.

Last summer, it made a great fanfare about new funding for the parks. Except it amounted to just £440,000 for each of them, a sum that wouldn’t buy a detached house in many areas of Yorkshire, and a figure which would do nothing to reverse years of declining budgets in the Dales or North York Moors.

Around the same time, four Peak District visitor centres – at Bakewell, Castleton, Edale and Fairholmes – were only saved from closure because of shortage of money by an anonymous donor who offered to fund them for three years.

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Whoever that was deserves heartfelt thanks, but the wellbeing of our national parks should not depend upon goodwill.

These are national assets and their original purpose is as essential now as it was when the parks began to be established after the Second World War – to give Britain’s people the opportunity and incentive to enjoy outdoor recreation while protecting some of our most treasured countryside.

Amid an obesity problem and endless urgings by ministers for people to get fitter to improve their health and ease the burden on the NHS, the role of the parks in our national life is arguably more important than when they were created.

Successive ministers responsible for them since 2010 have displayed a mindset that the countryside will somehow look after itself and money is not an issue.

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That couldn’t be more wrong. The sensitive and expert management the Dales, Moors and Peaks require if they are to be preserved and protected, while welcoming visitors and encouraging local economies to thrive, is not cheap.

The parks continue to be badly affected by the legacy of austerity measures which the Government has repeatedly insisted are long in the past.

Their importance to the nation has been taken for granted for too long.

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