70 Years on, What are National Parks for?
2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the legislation which enabled National Parks to be set up in England and Wales, including Dartmoor which was officially designated in 1951. The DNPA is planning various events to celebrate the 70th birthday. However hundreds of local residents in Poundsgate and Holne fear that the Authority will “mark” the anniversary by approving a development which will disfigure a much visited beauty spot.
More of that later, but why were National Parks set up in the first place and why are they even more precious today than in 1949? John Dower is often referred to as the architect of our National Parks. Britain was still at war but plans for post-war reconstruction were being made across government including the welfare state and the NHS. Dower was tasked with drawing up a plan for National Parks, which he wrote whilst living in a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. His White Paper published in 1945 established the four principles by which National Parks were to be designated. He saw them as extensive areas of beautiful and relatively wild country where for the nation’s benefit the characteristic landscape had to be strictly preserved; access and facilities for public open-air enjoyment were amply provided; wildlife and buildings and places of architectural and historic interest were suitably protected; and finally, established farming use was effectively maintained.
Others have put it more simply. Conan Doyle stayed in the Old Duchy Hotel, Princetown in 1901 to write his Dartmoor novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. He has Dr Watson reporting from Dartmoor to Sherlock Holmes, who is in London. Watson says of the moor, “When you are out upon its bosom you have left all trace of modern England behind”. Not a bad description of why visitors come to Dartmoor in their millions.
The National Park has management plans, local plans and planning policies stretching to hundreds of pages but its basic job is clear. In the words of its first statutory purpose, the Authority must conserve and enhance the wildlife, natural beauty and cultural heritage of the area. Its other statutory purpose is to promote public understanding and enjoyment. From time to time situations arise where facilitating public access and enjoyment conflicts with the need to conserve and enhance wildlife and natural beauty. Here the Authority’s task has been made clearer because the 1995 Environment Act enshrines what is known as the Sandford principle, which states that where there is an irreconcilable conflict between conservation on the one hand, and public enjoyment on the other, the former must prevail.
Economic activity in National Parks, including Dartmoor, is at very respectable levels, with tourism the main driver. Dartmoor’s unique selling points are the largest collection of Bronze Age remains in Western Europe, uplifting and unspoilt landscape, wildlife, cultural heritage, tranquillity and a pervading sense of being a “place apart”. It would therefore be an act of economic self-harm for the Authority to sanction damaging industrial developments in Dartmoor’s beauty spots.
70 years ago John Dower spoke about the recreational use of our finest countryside as being “second to none in giving physical, mental and spiritual health and happiness to the whole mass of the people”. When National Parks were first established in England there was a population of 38 million and 86% of households had no car. In 2017 the population was 55 million and 75% of households owned cars. Farming has moved from being labour intensive and horse drawn, to using powerful machines and multiple chemicals. 97% of old species rich hay meadows have been lost and wildlife and biodiversity have been pushed to the edge. National Parks make up 10% of our land and it is here that conservation and enhancement of wildlife and natural beauty must be given priority over all other demands of a growing population and an expanding economy.
This brings us to the planning proposal for a telecommunications installation including buildings and a 66 ft. high steel mast at Newbridge Hill. The site adjoins extensive public common land with unspoilt and unrivalled views over the wooded Dart gorge. If the development is allowed it will be visible from the Two Moors Way. It will vandalise a very special and much visited scenic landscape. The application has attracted hundreds of local objections and thousands of petition signatures. Tellingly not one member of the public has recorded support for the development, even though it is supposed to deliver “public benefit”. Locals are puzzled as to why the developers have not been required to carry out a species and habitat survey as requested by Butterfly Conservation and Devon Wildlife Trust. or to monitor the activities of bats at the site.
The National Park has an excellent leaflet on Dartmoor’s butterflies. It singles out Newbridge Hill as a special place for butterflies, and recommends a walk from New Bridge carpark to the proposed site of the telecommunications development. Butterfly Conservation have records of 3 fully protected fritillary butterflies which are breeding within metres of the development site, and according to the well known Dartmoor naturalist John Walters, the rare butterflies will be feeding on the proposed site.
Wildlife, birds, insects and flora have all come under enormous pressure from population growth and changes in farming practices in the last 70 years. Dartmoor remains a haven for birds which have been lost in the rest of the county and boasts precious habitats for bats, and butterflies, including old hay meadows. Dartmoor is a place apart, not just for human health and well being but also for our stressed wildlife.
There is real anger amongst the local residents and the thousands who visit this part of the Dartmoor that the professional planners want to approve this development even though they admit it will harm the National Park landscape. The public will not forgive any National Park authority that fails to uphold its duty to conserve and enhance our best landscapes and our precious wildlife.
You can help that cause by signing the Petition at https://www.dartmoor.gov.uk/living-and- working/planning/search-for-an-application/db-links/detailed-application-result?AppNo=0059%2F19
(Norman Cowling, April 2019)