ARC News Service report on the Full Authority virtual meeting of the YDNPA on March 30 2021 during which an “amber warning light” was given concerning future budgets; there were reports on supporting upland farming and about Nature Recovery; and there were calls for the right for local authorities to continue virtual meetings after May 8.
During the meeting the Authority’s chief executive officer, David Butterworth, twice emphasised that decision making should be local and not be dependent upon “two blokes sitting behind a desk in Whitehall”.
It was stated during the meeting that the YDNPA has been in the forefront of developing programmes to involve farmers and landowners in nature recovery and this is despite the Authority (like other National Parks) having faced significant real-term cuts in core grants from the Government over the past few years.
Even so, in the Review of National Landscapes by Julian Glover it is stated that the 10 National Parks and 34 Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (ANOB) in England were not effectively protecting the national landscapes. He also reported that National Parks needed better funded budgets, secured in real terms, so that they could plan ahead with confidence. The Review recommended that a National Landscapes Service should be set up encompassing all the National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in England. This will cover almost 25 per cent of England – and the Review also recommends that Defra should appoint all the board members of the National Parks, and the chairmen by the Secretary of State (in Whitehall?!)
The Authority was issued with an “amber warning light” this week – that continued cuts in the real-term value of its grants from the Government could leave it with only four priority programmes and its staff being reduced by almost a third.
The situation is so bad that the Authority’s head of finance and resources, Michelle Clyde, stated twice in the draft budget report for 2021/22 that members should see it as an “amber warning light.”
The chairman of the Finance and Resources committee, Neil Swain told the members: “In order to maintain a steady ship for 12 months…we’ve effectively allocated the whole of the general reserve to maintaining services in the next 12 months.
“Members must be really very clear that this is a budget that cannot be repeated. Unless we receive some significant increase in funding …in the next 12 months members are going to have to make some major decisions on which elements of our programmes we are going to have to think about cutting back on.”
Ms Clyde explained that between 2010 and 2015 the National Park grant in England fell by nearly 40 per cent in real terms which led to significant programme cuts and reductions in staff numbers. In addition the Authority was experiencing cuts in the real-term value of the Defra grant because it had not been increased to allow for inflation since 2019.
She told members: “The draft budget has been prepared against a background of unprecedented uncertainty. In particular, the Government’s planned Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), which would have set our grant level for the next three years, has been postponed, and the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on our other sources of income will continue for some time.
“The financial outlook from 2022/23 onwards may be extremely difficult as the economic impact of dealing with Covid becomes clearer. The funding of public services will be a key issue for the Government to address.
“If that approach involves significant cuts in grant then all English National Park Authorities will come under severe pressure in delivering their programmes, particularly the four priorities that have been established by National Parks England: Dealing with the impacts of Climate Change; Nature and Wildlife recovery in National Parks; the future of farming and Land Management; and National Parks for everyone – improving access and diversity.”
She stated that the budget presented to the members was affordable without resorting to any programme cuts but the future was much less certain. She added: “The impact on our programmes is very much dependant on the outcome of the CSR and the long term impact of Covid 19, as well as any changes in delivery that Defra might wish us to make in response to the (Glover) Landscapes Review.
The Authority, she said, had adopted a “wait and see” approach to the situation last year but it did not have sufficient reserves to continue to prop up its spending plans. “The likely state of the country’s finances makes the prospect of a significant cut to our Defra grant a real possibility again.”
The members were told that Defra had confirmed by email that the core grant for 2021/22 would be the same as last year with no increase for inflation but the formal agreement was still awaited.
Farming and Nature Recovery
At the Full Authority meeting it was re-affirmed that the Government’s new programmes to protect special landscapes can only be delivered by farmers and landowners working in partnership with local authorities such as the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.
The YDNPA’s chief executive, David Butterworth, emphasised this when he commented that this was better done at a local level than by “two blokes sitting behind a desk in Whitehall”.
The members agreed that a new Nature Recovery Plan should be prepared by March 2022 and that the objective should be that by 2040 the Yorkshire Dales National Park should be home to the finest variety of wildlife in England. It was noted that it already contains more nationally important habitats than any other national park in the country.
To create a new plan It was, therefore, essential that the Plan should be developed with local partners and with farmers and landowners, the Authority’s senior wildlife conservation officer, Tony Serjeant, stated. The Authority, he explained, only owned and managed 0.001 per cent of the land in the National Park with public agencies and charities owning less than five per cent. This meant the Authority had to work by largely influencing others.
Reporting on the Authority’s 10-year Dales 2020 Vision programme he told members: “We have managed very well against what’s happening at national level and we can hold our heads up high and be proud of what we have done.”
Serjeant explained that the biggest challenge was recovering blanket bog and peat of which there was a large amount in the National Park. It could take 100 years he said for peat in some areas to achieve a depth of 40cm and so be recovered. Due to that only 29 per cent of priority habitats outside of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) had reached Natural England’s definition of “favourable” condition. Within SSSIs 96 per cent were in good condition.
There had been some hugely notable successes, he said, such as increasing the habitat for dormice in Wensleydale, and maintaining the range of red squirrel, curlew, lapwing, redshank and snipe. The proportion of rivers in good ecological condition had also increased significantly.
“It is essential to protect what we have and aim for more, bigger, better and more joined up. That’s the approach we are taking. I am confident we that we can play our role in being at the forefront of creating nature recovery in England and the UK” he said.
He emphasised that it was necessary to get the proposed agricultural subsidy award system right so as to incentivise farmers and land managers to keep habitats in good condition and to create new ones. One example of this was the Dale-by-Dale initiative, funded by Natural England, where the Authority is working with farmers and landowners in Garsdale, Kingsdale, Littondale and Raydale to look at opportunities for nature recovery. The YDNPA is also working in partnership with other local authorities and national parks towards the restoration of habitats, peat uplands and woodland.
Adrian Shepherd, head of land management, reported on the preparatory work being carried out for the Government’s “The Path to Sustainable Farming: An Agricultural Transition Plan 2021 to 2024” He told members: “The programme will be delivered much by farmers working in partnership to protect the landscape and so I see this as a huge opportunity for the farmers who protect the landscapes as well as the protected landscape authorities themselves. There will be huge challenges to farmers. They are going to have to take on board many new opportunities.”
Many of the programmes envisaged by the Government, he said, had already been pioneered in the National Park. These include the Payment by Results trial involving 18 farms in Wensleydale focused on hay meadows and habitats for wading birds like curlews which has been on-going for four years and now has been promised another year’s funding by Defra.
“We are the only National Park Authority in the country to deliver the national programme of catchment sensitive farming,” he said which he added would have huge benefits for farmers.
He explained that the payments currently on offer to farmers will be withdrawn over the next seven years and would be replaced with a new system which will offer a significant range of opportunities to farmers to obtain funding with a major emphasis on being rewarded for “providing public goods” . It is planned that upland farmers, 75 per cent of whom live and work in “Protected Landscapes”, will receive funding for improving the natural environment, cultural heritage and public access.
Shepherd reported that in January Defra officials began discussions in strictest confidence with representatives of National Park Authorities and AONBs on how such a scheme would work and the level of funding that would be provided. Details are not yet available, he added and continued:
“Members will be aware that this Authority has been at the forefront of national thinking on the future support for farming in the uplands. Our approach has been based on taking a strongly collaborative approach with farmers and landowners.” This is being led for the Authority by the Yorkshire Dales Biodiversity Forum and the Yorkshire Dales Farming and Land Management Forum.
“Members have repeatedly made clear the importance they attach to the Authority’s role in supporting the future of farming in this National Park. As a result, the Authority has developed a highly-knowledgeable and skilled team of staff who, in turn, have helped to develop and deliver a range of local and national-level projects,” Shepherd stated.
When asked by Craven District Cllr Richard Foster how the Authority intended to balance the different breeding requirements of curlews and lapwings which did not seek tree cover and those of red squirrels which did, Gary Smith, director of conservation and community, said the YDNPA had collected data on every single species and habitat over the past ten years. “That’s pretty much a unique position in this country for an organisation to have,” he added.
Richmondshire District Cllr John Amsden pointed out that those on short-let farm tenancies weren’t able to participate in many of the schemes to assist upland farmers. “I think a lot of tenant farmers will just quit unless [the new programmes] are properly managed for their benefit as well,” he warned.
Shepherd replied that the current scheme was worse for tenanted farmers as it was based upon area payments, whereas the new scheme would be based on rewarding the provision of public goods.
Countdown to end of virtual meetings
Despite an extraordinary level of lobbying by local authorities throughout the country the Government has decided that virtual meetings should stop on May 8 before all the Covid restrictions are lifted David Butterworth told the meeting.
He said that the regulations introduced last year to allow video conferencing would end on May 7 and after that face to face meetings would have to be held.
“That’s a deliberate decision by the Government – in spite of an extraordinary level of lobbying from local authorities that they want at least the option to be able to hold meetings either face to face or via video conferencing in the future,” he said.
He explained that, at present, the timetable was for all restrictions to be lifted on June 21. But the YDNPA has two meetings scheduled between May 8 and June 21 including that of the planning committee. Mr Butterworth was not happy with the two suggested solutions put forward by the Government: either to hold meetings face to face or for all powers and decisions to be delegated to the chief executive officer.
Of the latter he said: “I would be particularly keen that you didn’t take that approach [as it is] a serious one for democracy. Well, I don’t think it is.” He added that each local authority should be able to make its own choices. “The decisions should be made here and not in the middle of London,” he asserted.
The members agreed with North Yorkshire County Cllr Kenneth Good that the YDNPA should write to Government ministers to ask that virtual meetings could continue after May 7, not just due to Covid-19 but also as some local authorities, such as the YDNPA, covered large geographic areas and that, during winter, it was difficult to travel.
Craven District Cllr Carl Lis said he was disappointed by the Government’s decision as he had hoped that the advantages of virtual meetings regarding climate change and carbon footprint would have been taken into consideration.
Member Jim Munday commented: “One of the things about virtual meetings and/or hybrid meetings is accessibility. That means that everyone within the National Park has much greater accessibility to the meetings.
“This has been noted at planning committee [meetings] since we went virtual in that we have had people who can afford half an hour to give their evidence but not a whole day to travel across the park to attend an actual meeting. So there is accessibility for people in all weathers and all times.”
One member, Ian McPherson from Sedbergh, even suggested that members of National Park authorities should go on strike! He said if members did not attend meetings the message might get through to the Government that everything was grinding to halt just for the sake of a simple piece of legislation.