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The Dales national park at 50: what about the locals?

Friday 13 June 2003

As the Yorkshire Dales National Park announces party plans for its golden jubilee next year, our countryside correspondent John Sheard discusses some of the successes - and the failings - of the national park movement

I COVERED my first ever national park meeting as a gawky, nervous cub reporter back in the 1950s. It was not the Dales but the Peak District park and even then there didn't seem a lot in it for me.


Fifty years of conserving this

You see, I was a Derbyshire local, who had spent a great deal of my childhood walking or cycling in the Peak District - playing rather than taking things very seriously - but at that very first meeting I was surprised just how somber and funereal most of the committee members were.

One of them was the Editor of The Guardian, then still bearing its proper name of the Manchester Guardian, but already on its way to becoming the bible of political correctness, although the term had not yet been coined.

And the thing that struck me as these people droned on about countryside I knew like the back of my hand was just how boring they made it all sound. Where was the fun or, a much better word, the joy I associated with such sublime landscape?

I didn't know it then, but I was to find out in spades later, was that I was one of tens of thousands of national park locals who felt that their voices were being totally ignored by the great and the good - a large majority of them outsiders - who had been chosen to sit on these committees as more and more national parks, including the two in Yorkshire, were created.

For when the post-war Labour Government set them up, the committees were tasked with preserving the landscape and wildlife and creating access for visitors. But there was not a single mention of caring for the needs of local inhabitants. Whether that was an oversight or simple contempt for country folk from a townie government I have never discovered.

As the half-century passed, national park committees won a deserved reputation for daft behaviour. Here in the Dales, when television was first being introduced, some members opposed the building of a transmitter mast and one famously said that if anyone wanted to watch TV they should move out of the park!

In the Lake District, they hired a helicopter at huge expense to see if new houses were being roofed with artificial Westmorland slate instead of the real thing, although they were virtually indistinguishable from more than six feet.

And the North York Moors refused a farmer permission to re-occupy a farmhouse which had stood empty for just a few years because his wife might hang out washing on a clothesline and spoil the view!

Such antics gave national parks a very bad name for the unfortunate people who lived there, even though they owned the land the visitors came to see and provided the facilities that the visitors used.

It was only a decade ago when a Conservative government changed the statutory duties of the park authorities so that they must now take into account the social and economic welfare of local people. And that has brought forward many improvements which, sadly, have not been properly acknowledged in some quarters.

Many Dales folk believe that all planning applications are automatically turned down by the planners when, in fact, something like 90% get approval. There has also been created a force of local rangers whose job its is to liase and react with the locals and report their feelings back to their bosses.

These are vast improvements and when the park celebrates its 50th anniversary next year (see News June 12) there is much to be proud about. But in the golden jubilee announcement, the very first priority was to get more disadvantaged people to visit the park, like the disabled or inner city dwellers.

This is very worthy and I hope it works. Sadly, it also smacks of political correctness and if that is coming back into vogue, I can see the Yorkshire Dales National Park having a lot of trouble in its next 50 years.

After foot and mouth and the catastrophic decline in agriculture, the national park's first duty - along with conserving the landscape, of course - is to the local communities. Only when I am a convinced members understand this shall wish them Happy Birthday!


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