Dartmoor must retain its local autonomy

© Anna Curnow

Dartmoor’s businesses, residents and visitors are being urged to sign a petition to demand a review of proposals aimed at centralising the management of England’s ten National Parks, a move which Dr Kevin Bishop, chief executive of Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA), had previously called ‘deeply concerning’.

Speaking on the launch of the ‘Save our National Parks’ petition, Mike Coombes from Dartmoor’s Two Bridges Hotel commented: “We are surprised and frankly alarmed at the proposals tabled following the Government-commissioned Landscapes Review, which poses a threat to the independence and individual character of England’s ten National Parks.

‘We wholeheartedly support the review’s message that the National Parks should be a positive force for the nation’s well-being and the recognition of the need to do more for the parks’ natural beauty, for its people, and for its visitors. We also agree that the National Parks should work more closely together on areas of shared interest. However, to combine the management of the National Parks into a single centralised entity would throw away the very things which make them special – their individual uniqueness, diversity and local understanding.”

This proposal is in response to the much-mentioned Glover Report, which was a Government commissioned study into the state of Britain’s National Parks and AONBs (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty). The report states:

“The underlying argument of our review, which covers England, is that our system of national landscapes should be a positive force for the nation’s wellbeing. Big ambitions are made possible by these 44 areas working together in new ways to become more than the sum of their parts. We want this to happen not as an end in itself but because more must be done for nature and natural beauty.

‘More must be done for people who live in and visit our landscapes. And a lot more must be done to meet the needs of our many fellow citizens who do not know the countryside, or do not always feel welcome in it, but should be able to enjoy it. Our landscapes are open and free to all, but can seem exclusive. We think this can only happen if we are honest about what doesn’t work at the moment and put in place a system which can do better.

‘Today, we have a system which is fragmented, sometimes marginalised and often misunderstood. Indeed, it is not really a system at all, but ten National Parks, who do not always work together effectively, and an entirely separate network of 34 less powerful Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). They have different purposes from National Parks, vastly less money, but sometimes greater pressures; and yet cover areas that are more visited, sometimes more biodiverse and are just as beautiful.

‘We believe this duplication wastes resources and diminishes ambition. That is why our central proposal is to bring National Parks and AONBs together as part of one family of national landscapes, served by a shared National Landscapes Service (NLS) which will give them a bigger voice, bigger ambition and a new way of working to meet new challenges. Within this family, of course, not every member will be the same. Local identity matters. National Parks need to keep their titles, at least their current levels of funding, and local autonomy, especially over planning. The current system of governance for National Parks (and, as we’ll explore later, AONBs) should be reformed substantially.”

The Save our National Parks petition aims to force a debate in parliament, to fully examine the impact of the loss of independence and local governance, which would be the result of a combining of the National Parks.

Mike Coombes continued: “Each of England’s ten National Parks offers a unique visitor experience, and a unique set of challenges for its own local economy and natural environment. Each National Park also has its own management, which understands the local needs, challenges and opportunities. The National Parks need to be managed by local people, not by a centralised bureaucracy.”

Richard Hassell, from the Ilsington Country House Hotel, commented: “Given the geographical diversity of all of the National Parks, along with the economic considerations reflected on their location within the country, it would seem irresponsible to centralise their management.

‘Each one has its own unique requirements, objectives and aims which only comes with years of experience and knowledge by those who know the area and its people. Dartmoor is a living, working environment which should be protected and nurtured and not merged into some money saving corporation.”

Jenny How, from Visit Dartmoor, was equally as opposed: “As the Destination Marketing Organisation for Dartmoor, we work closely with the management and staff of the Dartmoor National Park Authority. We see first hand the strength of their wide ranging local knowledge and deep understanding of this special environment, together with a ‘hands-on’ relationship with our Dartmoor farmers, the local economy, the tourism businesses and countless thousands of visitors. No one centralised body could possibly function as efficiently as the existing individual National Park Authorities who already have the vital knowledge and understanding of their own unique areas.”

The Report made six proposals which, when considered in the context of how the Government has responded to any questions regarding the climate emergency and our declining flora and fauna, appear to make Boris Johnson sound like he’s stolen someone else’s homework. The proposals are as follows.

  • National landscapes should have a renewed mission to recover and enhance nature, and be supported and held to account for delivery by a new National Landscapes Service.
  • The state of nature and natural capital in our national landscapes should be regularly and robustly assessed, informing the priorities for action.
  • Strengthened Management Plans should set clear priorities and actions for nature recovery including, but not limited to, wilder areas and the response to climate change (notably tree planting and peatland restoration). Their implementation must be backed up by stronger status in law.
  • National landscapes should form the backbone of Nature Recovery Networks – joining things up within and beyond their boundaries.
  • A central place for national landscapes in new Environmental Land Management Schemes.
  • A strengthened place for national landscapes in the planning system with AONBs given statutory consultee status, encouragement to develop local plans and changes to the National Planning Policy Framework.

Whilst the Landscapes Review has many excellent points that can and must be agreed with, this report is proving to be as easy to interpret in 50 ways as the Bible. Action must be taken, but each involved group is convinced their way is the only way. At a meeting back in April, Cllr Rob Hannaford, leader of the opposition Labour group, said: “I welcome any measures to increase biodiversity, improve inclusivity and better community access to our two glorious local national parks at Dartmoor and Exmoor.

‘We must resist any national government centralising powers and governance away from the existing structures that work so well with local representatives.”

Mike Coombes © Chris Saville

Cllr Roger Croad, Cabinet Member for Public Health, Communities and Equality, responded: “The establishment of this sort of service was one of the recommendations made through the Landscapes Review which was led by Julian Glover at the request of the (then) Secretary of State for the Environment.

‘This addressed a very wide range of issues relating to both National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), including specific recommendations relating to their governance.
The government response to this Landscapes Review is keenly anticipated. Whilst assumed that the creation of a National Landscape Service is likely to be announced, there is no certainty about its role and composition and the corresponding implications for the governance of our National Parks and AONBs.”

The Government did make a statement recently regarding the Landscapes Review, and those at DNPA waited for it with baited breath. However, the statement was once again vague and didn’t respond or commit to any of the points raised in the review.

Dr Kevin Bishop responded: “We are pleased that Defra have published a Written Ministerial Statement on the Landscapes Review that was chaired by Julian Glover and reported in September 2019, but disappointed that the Statement contains very little detail about how the Government will respond to the 27 proposals in the Landscapes Review.

‘Since the Landscapes Review was published, we have been working with partners to embed many of the recommendations in the Review in the new National Park Management Plan for Dartmoor. This new plan sets out a powerful vision to make Dartmoor better for future generations: climate resilient, nature rich, beautiful, connected to the past and looking to the future; a place where people of all ages and backgrounds can live, work or visit. A place that is loved, cherished and cared for. To achieve this vision, we need new tools and increased investment.

‘Whilst we welcome the opportunity to work strategically with other protected landscapes, we believe that improved funding, together with local engagement, accountability and identity, are the keys to the effective delivery of Dartmoor’s purposes both now and in the future.

‘We look forward to the Government’s full response to the Landscapes Review and hope it will provide the tools and resources we seek to deliver the shared vision for Dartmoor National Park.”

Central Devon MP Mel Stride told The Moorlander: “I have expressed my concerns to the Government – that there are significant risks with a centralised approach to administering our national parks, not least the likelihood of more decisions that affect us here in Central Devon being made by people who know our area less well. However, there may also be benefits in terms of sharing resources and improving collaboration between our national park authorities so I will be looking very carefully at further details from Government as they are known.”

Although nothing has been decided yet, the overall opinion on Dartmoor is that the National Park must retain its local connections and local relationships which are so important. It would be a big mistake to try to run any National Park from Westminster.

The point that needs to be remembered is that Julian Glover wrote: ‘National Parks need to keep their titles, at least their current levels of funding, and local autonomy’. It is this point which Government must not be allowed to conveniently forget.

A link to the petition, and further information regarding the
Save our National Parks campaign, can be found at
www.saveournationalparks.co.uk.

Author: Laura White

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