NATIONAL PARKS: A HISTORY
To understand the importance of National Parks in a modern Britain, we need to examine the historical context in which they were designated.
Widespread industrialisation led to demands for more access to the countryside in the early 20th Century. This was due to a growing appreciation of the great outdoors, the benefits of physical exercise, and the feeling of freedom and of spiritual renewal gained from open-air recreation. As towns and cities expanded, and more land became set aside by landowners for agricultural or sporting reasons, the conflict between landowners and public interest groups grew.
In the 1930s, groups of leisure activity enthusiasts and nature conservationists, including the Ramblers' Association, the Youth Hostels Association (YHA), the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) and the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales (CPRW), rallied together to lobby the Government for measures to protect, and allow access to, the countryside, for the benefit of the nation.
A 1931 inquiry into National Parks by a Government committee recommended the creation of a "National Park Authority" to select areas for designation as National Parks. However, no action was taken and public discontent grew.
In the cities, especially around the Peak District, where opportunities to walk on the moors were limited, people began to defy the landowners and gamekeepers and trespass on the moors. In 1932 a "mass trespass" took place on Kinder Scout. As a result of this five men were imprisoned and the conflict between landowners and those seeking greater public access intensified.
This pressure culminated in a 1945 White Paper on National Parks, as part of the Labour party's planned post-war reconstruction.
The establishment of National Parks was achieved with the passing in 1949 of an Act of Parliament by the Labour government; a move described by Lewis Silkin, the Minister of Town and Country Planning of the time, as "the most exciting Act of the post-war Parliament". Their purposes were to preserve and enhance the countryside’s natural beauty, and to provide recreational opportunities for the public.
10 of the existing National Parks were designated during the 1950s as result of this act. The Norfolk and Suffolk Broads was designated in 1988 by a special Act of Parliament, and the two Scottish National Parks were created as a result of legislation passed by the Scottish Executive in 2000.
Today there are 14 National Parks in the United Kingdom – 3 in Wales (Brecon Beacons, Pembrokeshire Coast and Snowdonia), 8 in England (Dartmoor, Exmoor, Lake District, the New Forest, Northumberland, North York Moors, Peak District, Yorkshire Dales and the Broads) and two relatively new additions to the family in Scotland - Loch Lomond & The Trossachs, designated in 2002, and The Cairngorms, designated in 2003. The South Downs is undergoing an enquiry as to whether it will eventually become a National Park.
National Parks cover 10% of the land area of England and Wales, with the three Welsh National Parks covering 20% of the land area in Wales. The two Scottish National Parks cover 7.3% of the country’s land area.
Our National Parks are also phenomenal tourist attractions – with around one million visitor days a year at the last count.
According to The World Conservation Union IUCN, the UK’s National Parks are part of a global family of 6,555 similarly protected areas, which cover an area of 1 million square kilometres. Amazingly, protected areas worldwide cover over 12% of the Earth’s surface.
Over fifty years on, National Parks remain as vital to the nation as ever. Devolution has resulted in the Park Authorities interacting with three different Government systems. We must not lose sight of the fact that National Parks are amongst the United Kingdom’s most precious assets – our finest landscapes, for us to enjoy, respect and protect for future generations.