Is UNESCO World Heritage status ruining the Lake District?

Over the weekend I visited the Lake District to attend ‘The Big Day Out’ in Grasmere.  The day was organised by the action group Houseboats-Off-Grasmere initially as a day of protest against the Lowther Estate who were proposing to install ten houseboats on the lake. Following an enthusiastic and dedicated campaign spearheaded by local residents the proposal was withdrawn, but the day went ahead as planned to celebrate the victory at Grasmere and to take the opportunity to raise awareness of other proposals which if successful, would irrevocably alter the physical landscape and integrity of the Lake District National Park forever.

One such proposal centres on gondola’s ferrying visitors from Thornthwaite village up to the Whinlatter Visitor Centre and then extending in both directions towards Grisdale Pike and Ullister Hill.  Local residents have formed the action group ‘NOGO Gondola’ to fight the proposal and are currently awaiting a report by planning inspectors in Spring 2020 whilst continuing to gather support against the plan.  As Whinlatter Forest is currently a thriving tourist attraction with mountain bikers, runners, walkers and family’s all flocking there year round, it is hard to imagine any other reason for such a proposal that will have devastating consequences on the aesthetic of the local area, the flora and fauna and the current infrastructure other than commercial profit.  Other proposals around the Lake District have included a zip wire at Thirlmere which was rejected after complaints from the MoD, resurfacing a four-mile path between Keswick and Threlkeld, and installing a zip wire from Honistor crag, planning for which was controversially passed after seven years and only 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”.  There has also been a long-term campaign against the use of recreational 4×4 vehicles which tear up green lanes north of Coniston which the National Park authority have not deemed serious enough to prevent as yet.  Unsurprisingly as many of these proposals have come to light questions have been raised regarding the management of the park and the direction it is being steered. Alongside these concerns we must also consider whether the Lake District gaining UNESCO World Heritage status in 2017 has had a positive impact on the park as several other sites which have been awarded the status across the world have succeeded in protecting areas of cultural significance, but also encountered negative effects due to the increase in visitors and the desire to create revenue from heritage status.

In 2009 The Independent newspaper ran an article revealing concerns that the UNESCO World Heritage Project was harming the places they were striving to protect.  The article emphasised that sites were not equipped to deal with the level of visitors’ heritage status attracts.  One example cited is the Iwami Ginzan silver mine in the South-West of Honshu Island, Japan that has been established since the 1600s.  Before being awarded heritage status the site attracted a modest 15,000 visitors a year, following heritage status “almost 1 million people brought their cameras … to Iwami”, an increase in visitors the site could not sustain.  A similar story surrounds the jetties of Malaysia’s George Town that were awarded heritage status in 2008. The seven jetties which remain were saved through being included on the list, however the locals have paid the price: where “fishermen, oyster harvesters and fortune tellers once plied their trade, souvenir vendors and snack bars have taken root”.  The Lake District management must be mindful to balance the economical motivations of increased tourism with the interests of the local population and natural environment to not irrevocably alter the cultural identity of the place which was part of successfully gaining heritage status initially.

The honour of being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site can it seems be positive and negative – however the park is not struggling for visitors, with current surveys suggesting that 15.8 million people visit each year, so there is no need for the Lake District to become a novelty destination full of rides and attractions making it a caricature of itself.  The beauty, tranquillity and wildlife must be protected for future generations to maintain the ethos of the national parks which is to “conserve and enhance the natural beauty [and] promote opportunities … for the enjoyment … of national parks by the public”.  This does not prioritise commercial gain and suggests moving forward there may be a continual struggle between the micro and the macro interests of those who live within the park and those who visit with those who manage and seek to profit off the back of heritage status.