Mike Warden has just retired after working in two of the most beautiful areas of North Yorkshire. In 1975 he joined the planning department of the YDNPA (Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority) and moved in 1998 to Harrogate Borough Council where he was often involved with planning applications from those living and working in the adjoining Nidderdale AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). He believes the National Parks needed to be designated in the early 1950s to protect the beautiful hill and mountain areas:
ELITISM AND EMPIRE BUILDING
The National Parks were set up to protect their natural beauty, to promote visitors coming to them, and to have consideration for the social and economic welfare of those living in them. It was the natural beauty and promote the freedom of walking over the open fells, and over those special mountain areas, that they were created for.
Everything went quite well when the National Parks were administered by the county councils, although there was some criticism that the old rural district councils were too parochial. But when the new park authorities were created in 1974, they started to take unto themselves responsibilities, including planning, that the national parks initially had not been set up to administer. They started to want to control so much and they rather lost sight of what they were really supposed to do.
The YDNPA does have a good warden and tree planting service and these are very important. It has done quite well at promoting tourism in the National Park. But these functions were usurped from the County Council’s countryside service, from the Forestry Commission, and from the old Tourist Boards. On the other hand, the YDNPA has been poor at looking after the landscape and very, very slow to get involved in helping the agricultural businesses that managed the landscape – the hill farms. They are not really involved now. They try and assist in form filling, helping landowners to get special grants that Defra administers. But Defra could fulfil that function itself if it set its mind to it.
When I started in 1975 the National Park didn’t have planning policies. The principle was that unless a planning application was wrong and you could find valid reasons for refusing it, you would have to allow it. But then the YDNPA, particularly the officers, got so elitist that it lost track of social and economic welfare, and it lost sight of promoting enjoyment of the area, rather it wanted to control tourism. It thought it was protecting the countryside by controlling the villages and the towns – and it wasn’t. It was just making itself very unpopular.
In 1984 I became the agricultural officer and was involved in the design of farm buildings in the dales at a time when there were generous grants from MAFF, which preceded DEFRA. It wasn’t a question of saying No to buildings – but rather of saying how we can get nice looking buildings that fulfill their purpose and that fit in. And that really did usually work – except when elitism came in. At that time stock numbers were growing and the farmers needed more accommodation for their animals during the winter. We developed some wonderful buildings that did just that for the farmers. A case that caused me the greatest concern was a farm in Yockenthwaite where the farmer wanted a sheep house. The farm is quite prominent in a special, picturesque place. With the farmer, the ADAS Officer and I designed a wide span sheep house. The farmer was quite happy to put a base stone wall along the side that was visible across the valley and to ensure that it nestled into the hillside, with a dark brown roof and Yorkshire boarding above the base wall so the building would have natural ventilation for the sheep. But elitism within the YDNPA really did rise up. Senior officers and the committee said it was in such as special place that the building ought to be entirely of stone. You cannot build sheep houses in stone because they don’t breath. Put more than three animals in during the winter and stock get pneumonia. So the farmer got a pretty stone building that was useless for sheep.
The elitism at the YDNPA crushed me after a while. Over the 22 years I spent there it became less and less of an Authority listening to the community and working with the community – and more of a controlling body. The elitism and empire building within the YDNPA was especially evident when the Authority proposed making Swaledale a Conservation Area because, it said, this was the only way get national funding to preserve barns and walls. Residents were assured that designation would not include anything else. But the day after the Conservation Area was introduced farmers found it did cover everything else, including felling trees. The YDNPA brought in everything that could be controlled in a Conservation Area under its remit. It had acquired additional controls by stealth. I was appalled.
COMPARING NATIONAL PARKS AND DISTRICT COUNCILS
As a planning authority a National Park is completely devoid of all the other functions that a responsible District Council administers. Any council outside of a National Park has to take into account the matters of building control, of environmental health, of pollution. of economic development, and most importantly local councils are housing authorities for their areas, which a National Park is not. The YDNPA always seemed to work on the basis that only if there was no conservation harm could an application be permitted. But in an AONB, the District Council has to establish conservation harm before it can be against a scheme. In each case the same question is being considered, but from two completely different standpoints.
The culture of the YDNPA is conservation focused. A significant proportion of the members are appointed on the basis of their conservation expertise – not economic development or social welfare. The appointed members have no responsibility to the local communities. You don’t get that in a District Council. District Councillors are not automatically conservation focused but they do want to protect that which they think is special. They have more leeway.
During 13 years at Harrogate I found it a far more healthy, respectful body that was making decisions – and by and large very good decisions. There is more local integrity in Nidderdale AONB than in the YDNP because the latter has been penetrated by the wealthy who expect the YDNPA to protect the value of their capital assets. There is quite a different culture in a District council’s consideration of its AONB. The elitism displayed by officers and members of the YDNPA doesn’t exist. In an AONB planning issues are decided upon taking a whole gamut of other issues into account. Councils like Craven, Richmondshire and South Lakeland are protecting their areas outside the National Park. They don’t believe they are there to create a perfect world. They are careful to encourage tourism and businesses – and are mindful that it is the businesses that keep the places profitable. It is the businesses that create a local society that is profitable, healthy and developing. The area develops socially and culturally as there are working people living there. In the AONB there are less holiday cottages and empty properties. You will find that rural district councils are very good at managing the countryside as well as the towns and villages. Good examples are the Lune and Eden valleys, and round Richmondshire and Craven, areas which are not even AONBs, so that the farming community can look after its countryside and the villages can grow and develop.
At Harrogate I found that the decisions made were far more balanced. There were no strong rural pressure groups and the decisions were made by consensus of councilors representing both urban and rural wards. The objectives in an AONB – to protect the specialness of the area – are little different to the objectives of a National Park. But whereas AONBs are administered by District Councils National Parks are autonomous Unitary Authorities.
So what of the proposed National Park boundary extensions? I have never quite understood why the boundary of the Yorkshire Dales National Park is where it is. It is an anomaly that areas like the Howgills are not in the National Park nor been designated an AONB. That said, the original National Parks were the first of areas to be protected, mountain and hill areas, wild and remote. Some time later as the pressure for controls grew, so the AONBs were designated, the second or a lesser grade of natural beauty.
The proposed new areas including the Lune Valley must be a third grade of natural beauty, way down the list of areas to be protected. They are neither a first tier mountain or hill area, nor a second tier AONB. Attractive the proposed extension areas may be, but they are not generally of the quality of natural beauty of a National Park. On the one hand to add the proposed extensions to the National Park would dilute the specialness of the natural beauty of the existing National Park.
The Lune and Eden Valleys will lose their identity if they are incorporated into what is now the YDNPA. They still have very strong local ties with what was Cumberland and Westmorland looking to Kendal and Appleby – not to an office in Bainbridge in Yorkshire to which they have absolutely no link or tie. If incorporated in to the YDNP, matters of housing provision, building control, environmental health, economic development would still remain the remit of the district councils, but planning decisions would be a National Park matter. Who would represent the interests of the areas? The YDNPA would have to expand in staff and in costs to administer areas a long way from its administrative centre and to deal with matters presently more effectively and efficiently carried out by the District Councils. If it could be proved either that the District Councils have been so incompetent at administering their areas, or that the residents unanimously believed being a part of the National Park would be their magic bullet, I might just consider an extension of the National Park boundary. One has to question, as Natural England is forced to shrink, is it hopeful it can pass its functions to another like minded conservation centred body?