I guess we should be thankful that, unlike in the US (where the parks have been closed because of the budget crisis), our national parks are still open. But they are under greater assault than at any time during their 64-year existence.
There was a worrying debate in the House of Commons on National Parks (Planning Policy) on 11 September. It was led by Simon Hart (Con, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire—slightly bizarre, given that Wales now has a devolved administration).
He said: ‘at the moment there is no provision in the planning application system for officers to consider social and economic factors’ (not true), and ‘ultimately landscape and ecological factors always take precedence, which is a problem’. It’s not a problem— that’s what national parks are for (though unfortunately landscape and ecology don’t always take precedence). Mr Hart called on the minister to amend the Environment Act 1995 to give economic and social criteria the same weight as environmental criteria.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Nick Boles, replied. It was Mr Boles who led the attack on village greens in the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013. Now he is attacking national parks. In his response to the debate, he repeated his words at a recent meeting of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, when he spoke of ‘the danger of making rural communities into museum pieces, not so much protected as embalmed’ and added: ‘This applies to many communities within national parks’.
He went on to adumbrate some devastating changes, in effect loosening the vital planning protection for the parks.
He wants to ‘have a conversation with Members of Parliament and other representatives of all national parks about three issues’. These are:
1 the balance between growth, economic and social development and the protection of the landscape, and whether current legislation properly captures what we are trying to achieve and what communities in national parks want.
It sounds innocent, but given this government’s record it is likely to mean opening up the parks to the developers and big business.
2 whether the current arrangements for national parks planning policy fully reflect the desire for a more localist planning policy.
These are national parks, if planning becomes localist then the parks become just like everywhere else and no longer the ‘true jewels in the crown of the English and Welsh landscapes’ as the minister described them (facetiously perhaps) earlier in the debate.
3 whether … decisions could be made more accountable, transparent and responsive to local conditions.
Again, these are national parks.
And then, two weeks later, we have the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Owen Paterson, speaking at the Association of National Park Authorities’ conference, advocating development in national parks provided there is so-called ‘biodiversity offsetting’.
‘For too long we have allowed the lazy assumption that the environment and growth are incompatible objectives within the planning system. I believe that, with a bit of innovative thinking, in many cases it is possible to have both.
‘This is why I am particularly interested in biodiversity offsetting.
‘Offsetting gives us a chance to improve the way our planning system works. It gets round the long-running conundrum of how to grow the economy at the same time as improving the environment. It could provide real opportunities in our national parks, where the necessary extension of a farm building could result in the enhancement of an existing habitat or the creation of a new one.’
Doesn’t he realise that you can’t just create a habitats overnight; they can take centuries? And some things, like archaeological remains, can never be created. The concept is facile, but of course it’s appealing to a government that wants development at all costs.
So national parks, and no doubt areas of outstanding natural beauty, face a new and massive threat, from a government which apparently doesn’t care for them and their unique and vital contribution to the nation.
Led by the Campaign for National Parks, we must all prepare for battle.