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Fifty years of national park: time to work together

Friday 23 January 2004

Our countryside commentator John Sheard says that it is time to forget the past and for the YDNPA and local people to work together

THE Yorkshire Dales National Park launches its 50th birthday celebrations next Friday with a celebrity walk from Ilkley to Bolton Abbey - after a meeting on Leeds railway station.

DJ Jimmy Saville and actor Brian Blessed will let the train take the strain from Leeds and then walk some six miles to Bolton Abbey for speeches and a fireworks display, accompanied it is hoped by a large media turn-out.

50 years of the Yorkshire Dales National Park

The significance of the rendezvous may be lost on many Dales locals but it is indicative of a new approach by the park authority: in future, it wants to attract many more townsfolk into the park - and it hopes very much that they will come by train or bus rather than by car.

"Green tourism" has long been the dream of national park planners, which makes good sense to any Dales local who has to use the roads to go about his or her business in summer. It is a dream that still have a long way to go.

But there will undoubtedly be some residents who feel that by launching the golden jubilee celebrations in this way, the park authority is once again putting the interests of visitors above that of the locals.

This is nothing new. There has been smouldering resentment between some locals and the park ever since it came into being in 1954 and, to be frank, a great deal of it was justified.

When the national parks were set up by the post-war Labour Government, their charters were flawed. They were charged with protecting the landscape and wildlife and ensuring access for visitors but there was no mention in their charters of caring for the social and economic interests of local residents.

Many of the original park authority members were not locals and, in the days before the phrase had even been invented, put political correctness before local interest: one member even suggested that people who wanted a television mast in the Dales should move elsewhere to watch the box.

I have reported on rows like this, both here and in other national parks, for many years and I admit that I was always on the side of the locals. Now, however, things are beginning to change very much for the better.

Park authorities now have a duty to foster local interests. In the Dales, they have set up a network of park wardens whose job it is to liase with the local community and bring their wishes to the attention of senior officials and committee members.

There are now many different funds available within the park to boost local initiatives ranging from transport schemes to community shops and post offices. Farmers can get financial help to repair barns or dry-stone walls and create wildlife havens in traditional hay meadows.

And on the decades-old row over planning permissions, the YDNPA grants many more than it refuses and - as a matter of fact - has one of the best records for saying Yes of any park in the country.

However, despite these improvements, there is still the problem of getting locals to take up these schemes. Like old age pensioners who are too proud to claim state benefits to which they are rightly entitled, there are still many Dales folk who view the park and its programmes with a suspicion bordering on disdain.

That's a pity because if the park is to get closer to the community in its next 50 years, co-operation is needed from both sides. Dales folk can be a stubborn lot and change has never come easily here. It is up to them to reach out and take their fair share of the benefits on offer.

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