Information on proposed National Park designation of CausewayCoast and Glens Area
Environment Minister Alex Attwood has indicated his intention to created two National Parks in Northern Ireland and enabling legislation will be put before the Assembly in December 2012.
The three areas under immediate consideration are the Mournes, Fermanagh Lakelands and the CausewayCoast and Glens. Of these three, the Mournes area has mounted a sustained and spirited opposition for a number of years. This area has only become aware over the last few months of this imminent threat. A lack of vigorous opposition to the proposal may mean that it is seen as the easy option: a failure to oppose maybe seen as tacit support. A group of concerned residents and farmers has been formed to inform local business and residents of the proposals and of the consequences of National Park designation and to coordinate and focus opposition. It has Committee members drawn from the Causeway area to Glenarm and has active support from Moyle District Council.
It is important to note that, initially, most members were open to persuasion that a National Park designation might bring some benefits to the area in the form of tourism and an associated increase in economic activity. However, discussions with the Mournes Residents Group, listening to businesses and farmers from National Parks in England and Scotland and our own researches have made it clear that National Park designation has little or nothing to recommend it to local people.
The following matters need to be brought to the attention of all interested parties;
- A park management body would be formed, responsible for developing and running the Park in accordance with the legislative aims. The favoured option appears to be the establishment of an independent Park Authority consisting largely of appointees, only a small number of whom would be required to live in the Park area, and a number of local Councillors. Board members would be expected to act in the best interests of the management body rather than the interests of any other organisation or nominating body. The Authority would create a statutory management plan for the Park and a statutory duty would be placed on all public bodies to have regard to this plan. It is envisaged in the consultation document that it may be necessary to allow the Authority to make bylaws and that it would be a statutory consultee in relation to planning. In other words, an unelected quango would have significant and possibly overriding influence over every statutory or public body operating in this area including the Rivers Agency, Roads Services, Department of Agriculture and the Planning Authorities.
- The Authority is considered likely to cost £2 to £3m per annum to run, in addition to start up costs. That is the cost of running the Park, not investing in business or tourism within it: there is no money allocated for those purposes nor will there be any. It must be funded by an increase in Rates and/or a diversion of funding from other Government Departments, perhaps Health or Education. Costs of running existing National parks are considerably higher; in 2008/09, the cheapest was £4 million (New Forest) and the most expensive, the Peak District and Northumberland, each cost in excess of £8 million. The infrastructure in this area in not fit for a significant increase in use, particularly the roads. The Minister has not identified the source of the funds to upgrade and existing budgets, given the delays in filling potholes and repairing flood damage, appear to be stretched to the limit.
- The National Park Authority would have an access strategy, encouraging local councils to exercise their powers under the Access to the Countryside (N.I.) Order. Those powers include opening up old roadways and paths, possibly closed for decades, or creating new ones. Visitors to the Park might reasonably assume that the same provisions applied here as in England or the USA: in other words that there is a general right to roam. Leaving aside any impact on property rights, increased access would have significant detrimental effects on farmers in terms of the spread of disease, litter, the possibility of personal injury claims and the risk to and from stock.
- The National Park Management Plan would provide ‘the overarching vision for the future or the park.’ Any development proposal that conflicted with it would not proceed. The planning authorities would have to have regard to this plan when preparing development plans. Cushendall has been identified as having a need for a significant amount of social housing. If this area is designated a National Park, it is highly unlikely that those houses would be built if the unelected appointees on the Authority deemed that the development was not “sensitive” to the Park’s natural beauty. Even minor alterations essential to business or farming development would be stifled. An example given to us was of a farmer refused permission to widen a laneway to allow access by modern agricultural machinery. The reach of the Authority would extend beyond the Park itself; in the Cairngorms the Park Authority objected to three wind farm applications outside the Park because they would have been visible from within it.
- The experience of National Parks in England, Scotland and Wales and also in
the USA is that there is a significant shift in population from young to old. Older,
wealthy retirees can and do buy in National Parks, inflating local house prices
even further and leaving young people no option but to move out. This impacts
on schools, medical centres and other services.
- Increased regulations and bureaucracy would stifle small local businesses and no new businesses will locate within the area. If there were increased tourist
numbers, it would be extremely difficult for small local businesses to expand to
take advantage of this.
Given the above, it is difficult to see what benefits the Minister envisages. Specifically, he has identified two areas:
- Tourism and associated economic activity. In this area, the major recipient of any benefit would be the National Trust which has complete financial control of the two main attractions in the area, the Giants Causeway and the Carrick-a-RedeRopeBridge. Research carried out by the Mournes Residents Group indicated that a simple designation as a National Park did not significantly increase tourist numbers: parks are always in areas of unusual interest or attraction where visitor numbers are, in any event, significant. The experience of some National Parks in England and Scotland has been that visitors stay and spend outside the Park area and are then bussed through it to look at it.
- The possibility of branding local produce to obtain a commercial advantage has also been mentioned: in this economic climate, it is difficult to see how a premium could be charged on produce from a National Park without anything more to recommend it, eg organic status or a particular quality breed.
- Protection of the environment. This is an aim shared by all residents and farmers. There is no indication of how any additional protection is to be achieved or what damage or threat to the environment the Minister wishes to address. There is already significant regulatory control in place in respect of protection of the environment. Clearly, any additional regulations would be aimed at the farming community. Increased population growth, pressure on food and fuel and an increasingly unstable global political make it essential to have a robust and effective agricultural sector free from the uninformed oversight of an unelected quango.
Mr Attwood has propounded the idea that a National Park could be created to address local needs and reflect local wishes. He envisages it as promoting tourism and bringing economic benefits, with environmental protection a secondary issue. This is not possible. There are six categories of protected areas listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, one of which is a National Park. A protected area is defined as being managed so as to achieve ‘the long term conservation of nature with associated eco system services and cultural values.’ To be internationally recognised as being properly identified and marketed, any National Park would have to comply with that definition. If it doesn’t, it is not a National Park.
It is essential to note that in the event of any conflict, precedence will always be given to conservation above any other need or aim, including development, tourism or the economy. This is called “The Sandford Principle” and this is the guiding principle of any National Park Authority. A National Park is about conservation primarily and not benefit to the local people or the economy. As soon as any increase in visitor numbers, business or other development began to threaten the overriding aim of conservation, the Park Authority would take steps to neutralise the threat.
To summarise, having approached the idea of designation with an open mind, the Partnership is strongly convinced it would be detrimental to the local people and economy. This is not a mountain wilderness or a barren moorland but an area where a population works and lives. We need to be able to change and develop and respond to market forces in order to remain a dynamic community attractive to young people and new businesses.
By all means, let us have investment in tourism and associated infrastructure. Use the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty designation already in place and the funds that would be used to establish and maintain the Park Authority to brand and market this beautiful and welcoming area. Do not, on any account, drop the dead hand of a National Park on it.