Happy birthday to Britain’s National Parks! This year marks the 70th anniversary of the 1949 Act of Parliament that created, to date, our 15 National Parks and 46 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs).
A shout out in particular to the newest kid on the block, the South Downs National Park, only established nine years ago and where I’m to be found most weekends.
A recent review of the parks, commissioned by the then Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove, has called for new national parks to be set up in the Chilterns, in Dorset and in the Cotswolds. It also recommended a new “national forest” to help increase woodland to combat the climate emergency. At present the UK has the lowest tree coverage in Europe.
Put your money where your mouth is…
In fact the review, which received 2500 submissions in response to its call for evidence and was led by David Cameron’s former speechwriter Julian Glover (hmmm, that old boy network at play again?), is not short on suggestions. Where the funding – or political will – might come from to implement them all remains to be seen.
Chief among the proposals is the idea of bringing National Parks and AONBs together as part of one family of National Landscapes, thereby creating a greater shared ambition and according them more status.
The review also recommends that the National Parks take on a more active role in promoting low carbon, accessible forms of transport (again hmmm, if only our current government would do just that as a matter of course…). That the proposed new National Landscape Service should employ 1000 new rangers to help reverse environmental decline.
And that every school child should be given the chance to visit the parks and spend a night under the stars. A laudable ambition to be sure but, given that something like three quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates, and a quarter of inner city kids have never seen a cow, this smacks more of being a soundbite to draw media attention to the review rather than a workable proposition.
It concludes with the thought that National Parks and AONBs have not done enough either to protect nature or welcome more diverse visitors, and that extra government funding is needed (you think?).
Right to reply
The Campaign for National Parks gave the review a cautious welcome, urging the government to deliver real leadership on countryside issues, and cautioning against reducing the finances needed to sustain existing parks in order to fund any new parks.
Environmentalist and political activist George Monbiot was less circumspect. “Where is the ambition our emergencies demand,” he thundered in this Guardian article. According to him, most of the world’s national parks are a category I or II – set aside principally for nature – whereas all ours are a category V – “places where, in practice, business comes first and nature last.”
He points out that, given the immediacy of the global climate emergency, the government should be funding natural regeneration over tree planting schemes wherever possible, and yet there are no woodland creation grants available to assist with this.
If we are to have some hope of meeting the government’s target of net zero emissions by 2050 (2050? Er isn’t that fiddling while the world burns?), then improving the health of our natural systems is one of the most cost-effective ways to achieve this.
Rather than seeking to drive radical change in the shape of new initiatives, however well meaning, perhaps we should first be addressing some of the existing challenges – such as a cash-strapped Natural England and National Park Authorities with no real power to support good wildlife management practices.
All together now, happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you…
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