I was invited to have the last word at the national park societies’ annual conference, What value our national parks? held at the Two Bridges hotel in the heart of Dartmoor, on 6 October. Organised by the Dartmoor Preservation Association, it was a very full day with many excellent speakers, covering sustainable tourism, natural and cultural capital, and farming and conservation. Inevitably it focused mostly on farming, especially since the Agriculture Bill had recently been published and we were staring Brexit in the face.
It was particularly appropriate that the national parks societies’ annual conference should have been held during World Commons Week (4-12 October). The week, organised by the International Association for the Study of the Commons, is to celebrate half a century of commons scholarship since Garrett Hardin’s influential but misleading Tragedy of the Commons article in Science magazine.
National parks are common goods in the broad sense—they are not commonly owned but they provide massive public benefit: clean air and water, beautiful landscapes and places for quiet recreation and reflection. More than a third of Dartmoor is registered common land where commoners exercise rights of grazing, peat cutting etc and the public enjoys rights to walk and ride.
There is so much that national parks can achieve, given strong leadership from the national park authorities, Natural England and Natural Resources Wales. The Campaign for National Parks has set the parks the challenge of upping their game on nature conservation (Raising the Bar), and in Wales the minister has recognised that it must be a priority for designated landscapes to improve the resilience of their ecosystems.
Farmers are important partners, but not the only ones; the value of cultural heritage, wildlife and archaeology had all been highlighted. We need to have flexible prescriptions for agricultural grant schemes because Dartmoor and Exmoor are very different from the northern uplands; it is essential to keep grazing at the right level or molinia (purple moor grass) will swamp our moorland and its ancient monuments and restrict access. The wording in the Agriculture Bill about public goods is a start, but it must become a reality.
The Glover review of designated landscapes in England is a great opportunity for us to say what we want for national parks, but it must be the start of the process and not an end in itself. We are facing the biggest change in living memory (for most of us) and national parks must be at the core of it. They can demonstrate what can be achieved and generate many public goods.
The national parks are each very different, but we are all united in our belief in them and their special qualities.
And the Campaign for National Parks unites us all as the campaigning organisation for the National Parks in England and Wales; it does an amazing job on small resources.
It is time to rekindle our movement. National parks are as important now as when they were invented nearly seventy years ago.