Let’s not play politics with our National Parks, it’s time for leadership

Campaign for National Parks wants to see real political leadership to make sure that our Parks are protected and enhanced now and for future generations. With a focus on exiting the EU in the Queen’s speech, and the appointment of a Secretary of State with a reputation for reform, our chief executive, Fiona Howie, considers what it all might mean for National Parks.

The Queen's speech contained 27 bills we can expect to see considered by the Westminster Parliament over the next two years (if this Government survives that long, of course!). But while BREXIT bills dominated, the detail of the new legal frameworks they will create is still unclear. There is also ongoing speculation about which elements of the Conservative manifesto may have been quietly dropped. We were pleased, for example, the manifesto pledge to support the shale industry including through introducing permitted development rights for non-fracking drilling does not seem to be an initial priority. This all means, however, it is still pretty hard to know what the new minority Conservative Government might mean for our National Parks.

The English and Welsh National Parks are designated under domestic legislation dating back to the late 1940s but BREXIT still presents challenges for the Parks. Areas of the Parks currently benefit from European level designations, such as Special Areas of Conservation under the Habitats Directive and Special Protection Areas under the Birds Directive. Importantly, the vast majority of land within the Parks will also be covered by the Basic Payment Scheme and agri-environment schemes through the Common Agricultural Policy. The uncertainty around the future of farm payments, therefore, results in major uncertainty around how our Parks will be managed in the future. The Queen’s Speech included an Agriculture Bill, the purpose of which will be to:

  1. 'Provide stability to farmers as we leave the EU.
  2. Support our farmers to compete domestically and on the global market, allowing us to grow more, sell more and export more great British food.'

While the document supporting the speech goes on to state one of the benefits of the Bill will be 'to protect our precious natural environment for future generations', it is disappointing that this is not seen as a third, and very important, purpose of the legislation. As the Bill progresses through Parliament we will need to make sure that environmental protections and enhancements are not see as an add-on, but rather as a core part of the legislation.

Earlier this week I was in the Yorkshire Dales National Park meeting farmers who are part of the National Park Authorities' outcomes focused pilot agri-environment  scheme. One of the farmers proudly showed me a film on his phone of hundreds of lapwing flying over his land and as we talked we saw and heard both lapwing and curlew nearby. Public money for public benefits will be a key part of what we will be calling for in discussions about future schemes, and we strongly believe National Parks can and should be key to informing the development of a new way of designing and implementing more locally tailored agri-environment schemes.

One source of leadership on these issues should be the freshly appointed Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Since Michael Gove took on the role there has been much discussion about what this might mean for environmental issues. People have raised his voting record on various environmental issues, which Mr Gove has defended stating he was voting in line with the Government Whip. In the same interview he highlighted his commitment to enhancing the environment and his willingness to listen and learn. He also pointed to his 2014 speech at the launch of the Conservative Environment Network in which he spoke of the importance of making sure natural beauty is properly valued and passed on to future generations. I would argue that his chance to demonstrate his commitment to natural beauty will be through prioritising the protection, resourcing and enhancement of our National Parks in the long-awaited 25 Year Environment Plan and ensuring that these beautiful areas are accessible to all.

I recognise that the National Parks are not perfect. I know there is more we can and should be doing to enhance these areas, but there is also a lot of good work going on within the Parks. If the Secretary of State is really committed to listening and learning I believe there is much he can learn from the Parks. But to do that the Parks will need to be protected from inappropriate development and sufficiently resourced, we want our politicians to demonstrate their commitment to these important areas and deliver on this.