In September 2019 the government published an independent review calling for a radical “shakeup of the running of England’s National Parks” and in the last few days the chief of the Lake District National Park Authority in Cumbria, Richard Leafe has told Sky News, “We need to be able to sell the national park to everybody in Britain, all of society, and it’s important that it doesn’t just become exclusive to one, single-use group”. The “single-use group” Leafe is referring to is white, middle-class and able bodied. Whilst there is no doubt that all of Britain’s National Parks must appeal to and be open and accessible to all backgrounds, ethnicities, and physical abilities without question, we must be careful not to misinterpret the notion of “sell[ing] the national park to everybody in Britain”.
In 2017 the Lake District was identified as a UNESCO World Heritage site ensuring it would be protected as a site “of outstanding universal value”, but the bid was controversial and its success has arguably marked a change in how the Lake District may now be packaged and ‘sold’. Writing in The Guardian a few weeks before the status was awarded the ecologist George Monbiot vehemently argued against the bid stating that heritage status “would lock the Lake District into its current, shocking state, ensuring that recovery becomes impossible”. This ‘shocking state’ according to Monbiot derives from “the great damage farming has inflicted: wet deserts grazed down to turf and rock; erosion gullies from which piles of stones spill; woods in which no new trees have grown for 80 years, as every seedling has been nibbled out by sheep”. Monbiot suggests that the bid actively fails to mention the condition of the areas woodlands by simply stating that there is no data available, an omission he deems odd as the Lake District is where the modern conservation movement begun. The entire bid according to Monbiot “is based on a fairytale, a pretence that the rural economy of the Lake District hasn’t changed for 200 years”. Once the bid had been successful and heritage status confirmed, Monbiot wrote again in The Guardian to declare that everything “that has gone wrong with conservation is exemplified by this decision … The way conservation groups rolled over is shameful”. Monbiot highlights that the culture of sheep farming in the district is not sustained within the park, it is heavily subsidised from Europe and as a practice is counter to conservation efforts as the amount of sheep grazing the land is having a widespread effect on the landscape. Concerns and anxieties about the National Park are therefore not only about accessibility and exclusivity, they are about management and conservation, anthropocentric versus eco-centric.
The success of the bid arguably quietly dismisses these concerns as the UNESCO brand is identifiable world-wide as a symbol of quality, protection and honesty meaning the Lake District can now be packaged and sold with an official UNESCO stamp of approval, enhancing its commodity world-wide as a place to visit, inevitably increasing tourism. This increase in visitors is essentially a double-edged sword as the Lake District needs tourists for its economy to thrive but increased numbers will eventually become harmful to the natural landscape and wildife with more cars, litter, hotels and leisure activities. Since 2017 a controversial plan to install a kilometre-long zip wire from high up on Honister Crag down to the mine car park has been approved following a seven-year planning battle. The plan passed this round as it was “reasoned that the landscape was already industrialised because of its mining heritage and therefore a zip wire would not spoil the environment”. Conservation groups including the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, the Wainwright Society, and the Open Spaces Society all strongly objected “on the grounds of impact on landscape character and loss of tranquillity”. Tarmac paths recently laid around Keswick replacing more traditional gravel paths have further caused controversy with Keswick’s deputy mayor Paul Titley telling Sky News that visitors have no right to paths that aren’t muddy and should accept the environment as it is or go elsewhere.
Overall, Leafe does have a point, we do need to be “able to sell the national park to everybody”, but not literally. In 1949 the government passed an Act of Parliament to establish national parks “to preserve and enhance their natural beauty and provide recreational opportunities for the public”, as we enter a new decade of ecological uncertainty it would surely be a backward step to effectively “sell” our national parks. They must be inclusive and open to all but not at an ecological price, which increased tarmac, concrete, cars, zip wires and foot fall will eventually cost. Conservation and education must be the commodity of the Lake District to ensure its future and the spirit of the Act of 1949.