At 5p per person per year, Exmoor National Park is truly a bargain
The Westcountry boasts two premier jewels in the nation’s environmental crown – Dartmoor and Exmoor National Parks. Five years ago Martin Hesp joined the chief executives of both on walks to find out more about the authorities. Now he’s been back to find out how they’re getting on in tough times. Today: Exmoor.
People who don't know much about the countryside might ask why any money should be spent on its green and empty acres. Take this argument further and you could reason that wilder landscapes require even less human involvement and therefore less financial support.
In some sparsely populated places on Earth you really could ring-fence a chunk of wilderness, call it a national park, spend very little and let nature take its course. But not in the crowded UK.
Our wild, empty upland areas aren't really wildernesses at all, but living, working, places that have been shaped by humankind for thousands of years. And it is in all our interests that they continue to be vibrant dynamic landscapes that are both inhabited, visited and environmentally diverse.
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When you give such a zone national park status what you are actually doing is upping a big and expensive ante. You are saying: "This beautiful, nature-rich, place where people live and work is so special and unique that is important to the entire population – which is why millions take the trouble to visit each year – therefore we're going to have to take extra special care of the area."
That is the basic equation which caused national parks to be created in the first place, over 60 years ago – although in those days places like Exmoor attracted just a few thousand visitors rather than the one-and-a-half million annually it does now.
Back then the national park didn't have its own municipal status – it was merely a designation overseen by Somerset and Devon County Councils, which employed a national park officer and not much else.
However, for years Exmoor and the other national parks in England and Wales have been authorities in their own right, requiring professional staff and multi-million-pound budgets. And this is how it should be, because these special places really do take a lot of looking after.
Here's an example of the kind of TLC we're talking about... Over the past six months, Exmoor National Park Authority's (ENPA) in-house team fixed and re-graded 10,850 square metres of local footpaths, cleared 682 fallen trees, made 164 new or replacement wooden signs, put up 70 new signposts and built 67 new gates, as well as replacing 14 river bridges.
Much of this work had to be carried out because of last winter's floods – and without the herculean efforts of the small team many popular honeypot sites like the paths around Tarr Steps would simply have been impassable.
To see some of this work – and to hear about the latest challenges facing the authority – I joined Dr Nigel Stone, chief executive of the ENPA, on a walk down the Barle Valley from Withypool to Tarr Steps recently, after which we climbed to lonely Cloggs Farm to see an example of how his staff work closely with local residents and farmers.
As we began our stroll we talked about the expectations which millions of visitors may have when they come to a national park – and the impact which results from such large numbers...
"I believe that there will be an increasing number of people visiting over the next 15 to 20 years," said Dr Stone. "People used to worry a lot about pressure from visitors – they thought it was having a negative impact on the place. The attitude in national parks is totally different now – we like to see people coming and enjoying these places. Actually, the more people there are, the more ability you have to put in place facilities to minimise the impact. For example, if we had more people coming to Exmoor I'm sure we could have more viable bus services, so that more people could enjoy the place but without detriment."
But while the national park is under increasing pressures as more people arrive to enjoy its natural beauties, the authority that looks after the place is seeing its funding (called a national park grant – these authorities do not collect funds from council tax) cut back severely.
This year, ENPA's national park grant is £3,337,000, which represents a 20 per cent reduction on the £4,177,453 it received in 2010/11. The grant for next year looks likely to be further reduced, resulting in a real-term reduction of around 33 per cent by the end 2015.
As a result of the cutbacks the ENPA had, by July 2012, reduced its core staff from 79 full-time equivalent posts to 58. As we walked down a much-repaired riverside path, I asked Dr Stone if the cutbacks had meant noticeable differences in the work his authority had been able to carry out...
"I guess, if it continues the way it has, there may come a point where we begin to struggle in a way that people would notice," he replied. "At the moment we've reduced as much as we can – for instance, we've got three information centres where we had five some years ago. We've been able to reduce the number of public toilets – the less glamorous stuff, but essential.
"But we have got to a point which we did notice this winter... Because we had so much adverse weather, the floods, the snow, the rain and the wind – the combination of those things led to falling trees, blockages, lost paths, eroding paths, lost bridges – all of that.
"A few years ago we could have turned all that around within six months – but now it will still be some time before we get back to where we were and everything back to the order in which it was.
"People do have expectations. Strictly speaking, if a path gets lost through natural mechanisms like erosion on the coast or in a river context, it no longer exists. But we can point you to lots of examples on the coast path and along rivers where we've had to reinstate paths and provide access. If we've done it well they're not much to look at, but they are often quite big engineering projects," said Dr Stone, showing me one place near Tarr Steps where a very popular footpath had been reinstated after being completely swept away by a landslide.
"Our focus has to be on maintaining what we have," he continued. "Clearly though, we still have aspirations to enhance and improve – and we have a good success record on carrying out other projects. But it's not necessarily the money for the one-off project which is the problem – it is the funding for the maintenance, the year-in-year-out stuff. No-one is interested in sponsoring the everyday work.
"Ultimately, we could not do our job if we did not have a good working relationship with the people who own or manage the land," said Dr Stone. "Exmoor, the landscape, is all being managed by someone. For example, on our walk we've seen how the hedgerows are a crucial part of the landscape – and they are being managed by the farmers and the contractors doing the work.
"If you look at the historic buildings – they are all people's homes and properties – and it's about getting people to see and understand why that property is important, getting people to see the real merits of these things and understand what we are here to do. If I spent 90 per cent of my time engaged with, and working with, the local community and very little of my time working with visitors – I would think that would be the right balance. It's only by working with this community that we will have anything worth visiting.
"It is not just another rural area," Dr Stone agreed when I put it to him that Exmoor was a special place that perhaps lifted it above normal local government, private enterprise arrangments.
"However, it was a nice area way before anyone thought of calling it a national park – and certainly before any national park authority and all these 'ologists' and other people arrived. I think we have to be very respectful of that."
We called at Cloggs Farm, where farmer David Bawden was showing ENPA archaeologist Rob Wilson-North some of the fascinating historic buildings surrounding the yard. We spent half an hour delving into the dusty old places which had all been built for all manner of practical reasons up there in the hills above Hawkridge.
"In the end, it is about local pride," said Dr Stone later. "Today we have heard David talk about his family's seven generations at the farm – we have heard about that history, that connectiveness. People like myself, who didn't have the privilege of being born and bred here – well... We can't invent that can we?
"So actually, I think we have all (the ENPA and the local population inside the park) got similar objectives – if we can only make sure we don't fall out over a few details on the way."
I asked Dr Stone what his predictions were if we were able to do a third interview in another five years' time.
"I certainly hope we won't be in such a parlous position funding-wise as we are now," he replied. "I've been here nearly 14 years – and you always think: 'Yes, this is kind of good now – much better than it was years ago.' And, despite everything, I genuinely feel that now.
"You have picked up on the fact that our relations are much better with the local community than they were. We've got excellent members, an excellent team – things are good now and I'd hope, whether it's me or someone else, that we'll have been able to keep that together and have not reached a point where we can't deliver.
"Exmoor's budget now is about £3 million from Defra – and there are 60 million people (in the UK) so we are all paying about five pence a year each. If you take all the national parks together, it's about 60 pence per person per year. If that isn't good value, I don't know what is.
"In a sense, Defra don't seem to make enough of us. We're not central enough in their broader objectives – and they could make more of us probably than they do.
"I was particularly stuck by the chief executive of Visit Britain who gave a talk recently in which she spoke about them wanting to up the number of international visitors to Britain. Their key marketing tool was our countryside – and national parks were a key part of that brand because the expectation abroad is that these are well-maintained and well looked-after places.
"So that £30 million a year to national parks from Defra potentially becomes part of something which attracts billions into the UK economy.
"We've really got to be looking after these places – and it's not just for British people – it's for the wider economy too."