Monthly Archives: April 2011

Time to spring clean the legislation cupboard?

This is one of my favourite times to explore National Parks and last week I had a fantastic wildlife and cultural odyssey in perhaps the most unexplored member of the family – Northumberland.  With a World Heritage Site, the far horizons of the Cheviots, spring lambs galore and plenty of border tart, there’s not much more that I could have asked for from the week.

The far horizons of the Cheviots at Windy Gyle

But I’m back down to earth with a bump already with the red-tape challenge, a public consultation exercise aiming to reduce regulatory burdens on business.  At first glance this seemed to spell trouble for some of our most important environmental laws.  Of course, major pieces of legislation such as the Wildlife and Countryside Act are unlikely to be axed – the government confirmed over the weekend that it has no plans to remove important environmental protections – but I am perplexed as to why they were ever included on a list of legislation to be reviewed in the first place.

 It’s certainly true that some regulations are no longer needed as they have served the purpose for which they were originally introduced.  But as with all laws and regulations the devil is definitely in the detail and I question whether the Cabinet Office exercise is really the best way to review and refine green laws?

Inevitably, given the lack of explanation about why such key pieces of legislation were even being considered for review in the first place, there has already been a public backlash.

Now that the NGO community and groups such as 38 degrees have mobilised their people power, I expect that this exercise will not lead to key laws being axed.  Rather more worrying is the uni-dimensional view of sustainable development that this seems to have unearthed within the government’s enterprise and business department BIS.

A departmental spokesperson is quoted as saying “We’ve got to look at things from both sides.  Yes, there’s the environmental side, but businesses have to deal with these regulations on a daily basis and it takes a lot to grow a business.”  Siding with either the environment or business isn’t likely to get us very far down the path of sustainability, nor is it likely to score too highly when the final count comes in on the greenest government ever poll.

Perhaps Business Secretary Vince Cable and his officials ought to take some time this spring to take a look at how the National Parks are demonstrating that a high quality and protected environment not only delivers the goods on wildlife and landscape, but also stimulates the economy and provides a base for businesses to grow sustainably.

The Peak District’s live and work rural programme helps to turn business ideas into reality and supports business development (examples include a green chippy, a llama trekking business and various retail, tourism and farm-based enterprises).

Sustainable Development Funds ensure that each year hundreds of thousands of pounds are spent on community projects across the National Parks and AONBs, many of which benefit local businesses.  Last week I visited Barrowburn tea room and National Park information point in the heart of the Cheviots, which was supported by that funding.

Sustainable Development Funds support many local businesses, benefiting farmers and visitors

So while every cupboard needs a bit of a spring clean at this time of year, the shelf of environmental laws needs to be treated very carefully, because if that falls down, several other shelves are likely to tumble with it.

Spring lambs abound in the National Parks in April, like this Scottish blackface near Sewingshields Crags in the Northumberland National Park

The South Downs National Park – a testament to the power of campaigning

On Friday 1 April 2011 the final piece of the South Downs National Park jigsaw was completed, when the National Park Authority officially came into being.  As well as sending a warm welcome to this newest member of the National Parks family, I want to salute the campaign that secured National Park status for this very special area.

The South Downs was an early contender for National Park status as it was recommended for designation by the 1947 Hobhouse Report.  But its case suffered because of the extent to which its downland had been ploughed up during the Second World War.  The campaign for National Park status lay dormant for many years but was reignited in 1990 when a group of environmental organisations formed the South Downs Campaign.  The Campaign was to be influential in many of the key decisions that led to the eventual confirmation of the National Park, but it also became a proxy for the growing and overwhelming public support for the South Downs National Park, as organisations large and small swelled its ranks.

Arable farmland is a very common sight across the South Downs

I got involved in the Campaign in the late 1990s and we soon scored a major campaigning success when the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott MP said at the Labour Party conference in 1999 that Labour wanted to see National Parks in the New Forest and the South Downs.  That was the start of the campaign in earnest and two public inquiries, countless press releases, many publicity-raising walks and endless planning meetings later, the National Park was eventually confirmed by the Secretary of State Hilary Benn MP in November 2009.

The Campaign was defined by and ultimately successful because of the selfless commitment and endless enthusiasm of its members, most of whom were volunteers.  Even when faced with much better funded opposition, such as that from West Sussex County Council, the Campaign remained optimistic and members dug into their own pockets to keep up the momentum.

The launch of the National Park is a living testament to the colossal efforts of everyone who played a part in the Campaign over the years – we spent many late nights plotting campaigns and writing letters to newspaper editors, but knowing that we have helped to secure a National Park for the nation makes every ounce of hard work worth it.  For me, it is also powerful evidence of the difference that people can make when they are united by a common objective.  As Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist once said:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

Of course, this is not the end of the story of the South Downs National Park; it is just the beginning.  Those entrusted with the management and care of the National Park will face many challenges in the years ahead.  But they should know that they can count on the support of the many civil society organisations who co-operated to form the Campaign and that they have the public well and truly behind them.

Welcome South Downs National Park Authority, and rest assured us campaigners will be waiting in the wings should you ever need us.

Gazing across the Western Weald, South Downs National Park