National Parks… designated for their national significance, natural beauty, cultural heritage, wildlife and recreational opportunities. In England we are lucky enough to have ten National Parks, the most recently created being the South Downs in 2009, receiving the status after a long fought campaign by CPRE and many others. And only last year, the Government confirmed extensions to the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales, forming a ‘bridge’ between the two parks. So it seems that the Government recognises the importance of National Parks and the vital role they play – both for the economy and people’s wellbeing. Research by National Parks England found that there an astounding 90 million day visitors to National Parks and surrounding areas each year, who spend more than £4 billion and support 68,000 jobs.
National Parks hold the highest level of planning protection and have done so since their creation in the late 1940s – yet, in practice, they are at a real risk of inappropriate developments, both larger and smaller, that can cumulatively have a major impact on a Park. This is an issue that CPRE has been concerned about for many years – a view shared by our dedicated county groups who engage with planning cases at the local level. In 2013, we published Going, Going, Gone? England’s disappearing landscapes – a report based on 23 planning cases that threatened National Parks, AONBs or undesignated countryside. One of our main recommendations was for Government to strengthen national planning policy for designated landscapes – but no improvements were made. Since then, one of the most high profile major developments in recent years, the world’s largest potash mine, was approved in the North York Moors National Park after Government declined to call it in for a Public Inquiry.
We believe that more needs to be done to ensure the long term protection of England’s National Parks. So, when the opportunity came up for CPRE to work alongside the Campaign for National Parks and the National Trust to commission independent research about major development in, and on the edges of, National Parks, it was an offer we couldn’t refuse.
After much finessing of the project brief, we appointed Sheffield Hallam University to carry out the research. The project investigated, in unprecedented detail, the national policy to control major development in National Parks. The researchers interviewed National Park Authority planners across the country and examined the decisions on 70 planning applications, the majority from the past ten years, with 15 case studies explored in more detail. These included controversial cases such as a 14 hectare solar farm in the New Forest National Park, which after much to-ing and fro-ing was finally refused by Government in 2016. Other examples are a road bypass scheme on the edge of the Lake District which was approved in 2003 and a football stadium on the boundary of the South Downs which was approved by Government in 2007; both were permitted due to ‘local benefits’, despite the national importance of the parks.
National Parks' (and AONBs') level of protection means that major development should only be allowed in exceptional circumstances. However, Sheffield Hallam University’s research found that interpretations of ‘major development’ vary between the National Parks, and decisions to approve planning applications often reflect the Government mood at the time, with policy changes that lean toward economic growth rather than putting landscape protection first. This ambiguous approach means that what is considered a major development in one part of the country may not be so somewhere else. We’d like to see improvements to national planning guidance so that there is more clarity about both the interpretation of ‘major developments’ and what ‘exceptional circumstances’ may allow them.
The research also found that European regulations such as the Birds and Habitats Directives play an important role in safeguarding biodiversity and wildlife in National Parks – it is vital that protections for nature are maintained post-Brexit. We’d also like to see Natural England, the Government’s advisors on the environment, take a more active role in ensuring that National Parks are protected from unsuitable major development –by producing a yearly update, for example.
Based on Sheffield Hallam University’s research, CPRE, the Campaign for National Parks and the National Trust have just published National Parks – Planning for the Future, which presents the many recommendations we believe will help improve how major development is managed in, and in the settings of, National Parks. This should begin with Government reconfirming its commitment to National Parks in the forthcoming 25-year plan for the environment, by clearly setting out exactly how they will ensure their long-term protection and enhancement.
What it all boils down to is that England’s National Parks are not ours, but ours to look after. We’re certainly not saying that these places should be set in aspic – they are living landscapes – but if they are chipped away by inappropriate development then we risk irreparably damaging the ‘crown jewels’ of the English landscape. With that in mind, we’ll be working closely with CNP and the National Trust to do what we can to improve the future of England’s astounding National Parks, for the benefit of current and future generations.