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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Tom Wall

Funding cuts leave England’s national parks facing ‘existential crisis’

Wild Dartmoor ponies at Staple Tor near Merrivale,
Wild Dartmoor ponies at Staple Tor near Merrivale. Photograph: Stuart Black/Alamy

England’s national parks are facing a funding crisis that is forcing them to make plans to close visitors centres, make park rangers redundant, stop maintaining paths and introduce other cuts, in an effort to balance their budgets, according to the latest figures.

Funding has fallen by 40% in real terms over the last decade, and grants are expected to flatline until 2025 despite rising wage bills and costs. Government funding for national parks has been frozen since last year. Data compiled by National Parks England suggests the country’s 10 park authorities will have to make cuts of £16m over the next three years.

“We are being asked to help fight the climate and nature emergencies. We are being asked to accommodate 80-odd million visitors a year. But we cannot achieve all these objectives if our funding is falling,” said David Butterworth, the current lead chief executive for National Parks England. National parks were established under legislation passed by the postwar Labour government to protect the nation’s most valued landscapes and provide the war-weary population with opportunities for spirit-lifting outdoor recreation.

Other parts of the UK are working to open up more national space. The Scottish government is consulting on establishing at least one new national park by 2026 and the Welsh government is planning to create a new national park in north-east Wales.

But in England, most if not all the parks are facing crisis. Dartmoor national park, which manages 368 sq miles of rugged moorland in Devon, this week began consulting its 100-strong workforce about 15 to 20 redundancies and £500,000 worth of cuts, which could lead to the closure of an award-winning visitor centre. The authority is also considering selling land and historical buildings, including one of the few remaining traditional farmsteads on Dartmoor, to private buyers, who may deny the public access.

“We’re in the worst financial position that the authority has been in since it was established [in 1995]. We’re not just planning to reduce services – we will have to shut down services,” said Kevin Bishop, Dartmoor national park chief executive. “We are heading towards an existential crisis.”

Dartmoor, which receives £3.8m from the government every year, warns in its latest budget that 21 projects, including the park’s biodiversity action plan and its youth rangers outreach programme, could be at risk.

The Northumberland national park authority, which is responsible for 200 sq miles of northern uplands including Hadrian’s Wall, is using its reserves to meet some of its running costs. Tony Gates, chief executive of the authority, said it had lost more than half its funding since 2010, and needs to find £600,000 worth of savings by 2025. It is exploring all options to make up the shortfall including potentially cutting ranger services, rights of way maintenance, visitor centres and nature restoration projects.

“All national parks’ finances are on a cliff edge but Northumberland is the closest to the cliff edge because it receives the least from the government,” he said. “It means we will have to look at reducing frontline services. We may have to stop whole areas of work.”

The Cheviot hills in Northumberland national park.
The Cheviot hills in Northumberland national park. Photograph: Izel Photography/Alamy

Staff in the park already multitask and work beyond their job descriptions, with many key functions covered by just one person. “It’s very demoralising. People who work for national parks – like me – believe in what we do. We believe Britain’s finest landscapes should be cared for and that everyone in society should have an opportunity to have access to the outdoors,” said Gates.

Landacre Bridge and the River Barle on Exmoor.
Landacre Bridge and the River Barle on Exmoor. Photograph: James Osmond Photography/Alamy

Exmoor national park, which manages the moorland and wooded valleys on the northern edges of Somerset and Devon, receives £1m less grant funding than it did in 2010. It will have to make a further £500,000 worth of cuts by 2025. Sarah Bryan, the park’s chief executive, said the authority was considering closing up to two of its three visitor centres, making redundancies “right through the organisation” and handing back management of 1,000km (620 miles) of paths to local county councils, which are grappling with their own budget deficits.

She said the authority may also have to sell land “that belongs to the nation” and increase charges to use its car parks, which would discourage people on low incomes.

Yorkshire Dales national park will have a budget shortfall of £1.3m by 2025, the largest deficit of any English authority. “Frankly, I’m frustrated and dismayed. Opportunities to make a difference [to climate change] are being lost. If the nature and climate crisis are not tackled quickly then none of us has a future,” said Butterworth, who is also the Yorkshire Dales’ chief executive.

A tree on the limestone pavements above the village of Malham in the Yorkshire Dales.
A tree on the limestone pavements above the village of Malham in the Yorkshire Dales. Photograph: George Robertson/Alamy

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson said: “We understand the very challenging financial circumstances currently facing all sectors and the pressures that this is putting on our national park authorities in particular. We remain committed to supporting our national park authorities and are working with them to identify additional sources of funding, particularly through private investment.”

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