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National parks at 60: success at last for locals?

Friday 01 May 2009

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who covered his first national park committee meeting 50 years ago, reflects on the 60th anniversary of the creation of the first national parks, and says that it took almost 40 of those years for planners to realise that local residents had rights too

EVEN I am not old enough to have reported the creation of the first national parks – the Peak District and the Lakes – 60 years ago. But it is half a century exactly since I covered my first ever national park meeting as a cub reporter. And as the French say, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Back in 1959, when I first got on a Trent bus to take me to that Peak District National Park meeting in Bakewell, Derbyshire, one of the main sources of controversy was the clash between wealthy business folk from Manchester, Sheffield and Derby and quarry wagons.

Simons Seat
The Yorkshire Dales National Park

These newcomers had bought weekend cottages in the Peak only to find that their rural idyll was being ruined by heavily laden quarry wagons roaring through the picture postcard countryside to feed the huge re-building programmes that finally dragged Britain out of the gloom of World War 11.

Go to Ribblesdale or Upper Wharfedale in the Yorkshire Dales now and the same war of words is still being fought. Wealthy offcumdens regularly demand that quarries should be closed down because they are “scars on the landscape” – but it is the traffic they are really protesting about. That desperately needed jobs for lower-paid locals are at risk does not seem to concern them.

And for the first 40-odd years of the national park movement, the locals in most national parks – but particularly here in the Dales, in easy commuting distance of big cities like Leeds and Bradford – the locals got pretty short shrift from the planners.

When National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed by Clement Atllee’s Labour Government in 1949, it was considered a triumph for the Left because it gave the urban working class access to land owned by “the nobs” in the countryside (although, in fact, much of it was owned by the municipal water companies whose reservoirs dotted the Lake District and the Peak).

The Act set up authorities whose job was to protect the landscape and its wildlife and maintain access to visitors and, for that, everyone in England should be thankful: God only knows how much of these prime landscapes would have been concreted over from the 1960s onwards without this protection.

But these powers said nothing about what is undoubtedly a matter of equal importance: these new parks were given no legal obligation to protect the social and economic interests of the people who not only lived in the parks but actually owned them. Apart from a few office buildings, the parks authorities rarely own an acre of the land over which they had enormous control.

As Lord Peel, direct descendent of Sir Robert Peel and then owner of a vast shooting estate in Swaledale once told me with some bitterness: “These areas are misnamed. They are not national, in as much as the state does not own them, and they are not parks but a working environment for country people.”

This sense of bitterness amongst locals, who found themselves, being bossed about bureaucrats who they rarely saw, was exacerbated by the fact that many of the members of these park committees often lived many miles away: at one point, not a single member of the Lakes authority lived in the park.

And over the years, they did some pretty insensitive things: one Yorkshire Dales member, objecting to a TV mast being built in the park in the early days if television, suggested that any local wanting TV should move.

The Dales park authority has at last located a large number of sites for small-scale development of low cost homes for locals

The North York Moors committee refused permission for the refurbishment of a derelict farmhouse because if a family moved in, they might put washing out on a clothesline and spoil the view. And the Lakes hired a helicopter at vast expense to check that people were using the right tiles when repairing their roofs. I reported these stories and many more and gained the reputation of being “anti-park” which was nonsense. But I was passionately pro-local and I was delighted when, in the 1980s, a Conservative minister I knew well introduced vital changes to the national parks act which gave them a third legal obligation: to enhance the social and economic lives of local residents.

Since then, matters have improved enormously. Here in the Yorkshire Dales, park wardens were appointed with the specific job of liaising with the locals before any major policy decisions were taken. Planning permissions for minor building work were no longer routinely rejected and, in particular, small local businesses were encouraged to expand to create more jobs.

There still, however, one major step to go – but it is at last in the pipeline. The Dales park authority has at last located a large number of sites for small-scale development of low cost homes for locals – one of the bitterest divisions between residents and the bureaucrats this past half century. When they are built (or should I say, if they are built) I might eventually feel that the national parks have been a resounding success for the people who really look after them: the locals!

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