Roger Smith is disturbed by proposals for the future management of the Lake District.

This column was first printed in the October 2018 edition of The Great Outdoors.

“This plan appears to prioritise damaging developments to provide public enjoyment over protecting the landscape of the Lake District.” This comment is from the Friends of the Lake District’s response to the draft Local Plan for the Park area, recently circulated by the Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA). It is swiftly followed by another equally cutting criticism: “The Plan champions inappropriate, fanciful tourism development that will impact on the landscape character of the Park both directly and indirectly.”

I’ve seen dozens if not hundreds of responses to Plans of this kind by voluntary bodies, and Friends of the Lake District’s document (which you can read on their website – PDF download) is an absolute model of its kind. It amounts to a forensic evisceration of the LDNPA’s proposals and to my mind, leaves the Park Authority in an untenable position. As Friends of the Lake District (FLD) say, the Plan is “predominantly visitor economy focused… designed to deliver an ever greater number of tourists to a National Park that is already hosting 19 million visitors a year.”

“I believe the Park Authority’s thinking has been suspect for a while”

FLD points up ideas in the Plan that they rightly say are “at best inappropriate and at worst fanciful”. An example is the proposal for a new multi-user trail right round Derwent Water, which the Plan promotes as “an attraction in its own right”.

A multi-user trail would almost certainly mean extensive stretches of boardwalk or surfaced path, which would spoil the delicate beauty of Derwent Water for ever. I believe this is a thoroughly bad idea, and I find it depressing that the NPA should even consider it.

I believe the Park Authority’s thinking has been suspect for a while. They failed to offer a robust opposition to the Thirlmere zipwire plan, and they have been sitting on the fence on the matter of off-road 4×4 vehicle use for years when the situation is crying out for firm action through the application of Road Traffic Orders.

It is shameful that the National Park Authority have to be reminded of their fundamental duty as guardians of perhaps our most-loved National Park but as FLD point out, much of the Local Plan “conflicts directly with the Sandford Principle, which prioritises the environment and landscape of the Lake District over damaging development”; and in bold type they add: “It is a National Park not a theme park”.

There is further evidence of the latter approach in the proposal for a gondola ride from the A66 to the redeveloped Whinlatter visitor centre. This is put forward as a solution to a transport problem, whereas it is in fact a new visitor attraction – one that is both unnecessary and damaging to the landscape.

We come back to this point time after time. The visionary people who drew up the National Parks Act in 1949 wanted to enshrine in legislation the true purpose of National Parks – to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of our finest areas while providing opportunities for peaceful recreation, not to go all out for maximum revenue from ever-increasing numbers of people that the fabric of the Park cannot (nor should be expected to) sustain.

“It is time for the LDNPA to get back to basics. Their primary responsibility is to care for the natural beauty and cultural values of the National Park”

It is little wonder that ICOMOS, the advisory body to UNESCO on World Heritage Sites, has stated in a review of the Lake District (which gained World Heritage status only a year ago) that “special attention is needed to ensure that impacts of tourism are reduced”. The current Plan proposes the exact opposite of that, and it would be ironic indeed if the adoption of this Plan, which has huge potential for damaging the very qualities that visitors come to enjoy, led to the Lake District’s World Heritage Site status being revoked. It’s not impossible.

I believe the vast majority of people do not want the Lake District, which has given so much pleasure and enjoyment for the past century and more, to be turned into some kind of adventure theme park; those who do feel the need for an adrenaline rush can easily be accommodated elsewhere, outwith our National Parks.

It is time for the LDNPA to get back to basics. Their primary responsibility is to care for the natural beauty and cultural values of the National Park, and that responsibility comes way before anything else. This is what the Sandford Principle means, and it applies to all environmentally protected areas. We have already seen the Welsh Government putting forward proposals that would diminish the Welsh NPs. We do not want to see the same happening in the Lakes.

Anyone charged with caring for the Lake District today does so with an uneasy cluster of ghosts on their shoulder – Wordsworth, Ruskin, Canon Rawnsley, Beatrix Potter. They all cared for the area passionately, and respected it; sadly, that passion and respect is missing from today’s Local Plan. The message to the National Park Authority is clear: admit you’ve got it wrong and start again. Show the National Park the love and respect it deserves, and let the ghosts rest easy.

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