I grew up on the edge of the Peak District, so national parks are close to my heart. Places like the Peak District depend on farmers to keep the environment in shape and the rural economy running. In turn, those farmers depend on European money. As far as Brexit is concerned, the stakes are high:
Although just 1% of British people work in agriculture, 12% do in the Peak District National Park, a pattern of economic activity found across all the national parks. In Snowdonia, for example, 80% of the average farmer’s salary – a shockingly low £13,000 a year – depends on European funding.
The income of these farmers is integral to the rural economy, because their land management practices keep the natural landscape accessible to the general public, which in turn draws in domestic and international tourists. Some 25% of people in the Peak District depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Directly and indirectly, farming is the lifeblood of the rural economy.
It is also the root and stem of the natural environment. Despite the damage that overgrazing has done to areas of the Lake District and other national parks, evidence suggests that the environment would suffer if farmers were unable to support themselves. Emyr Williams, Chief Executive of Snowdonia National Park Authority agrees: “without the CAP, there would be nobody to manage the landscape.”
The challenge posed by Brexit is that agriculture, environment and economy – the three pillars of national park existence – are interrelated. Replacing EU funding will not, in itself, ensure that national parks continue to thrive. Like all public bodies, parks need to work with each other, with central government departments and with local stakeholders to survive. Unlike all public bodies, the national parks are doing this already…
If the British national parks are a microcosm of the challenges thrown up by Brexit, they are also case studies in how to solve them. Meeting Brexit head on requires the alignment of agricultural, environmental and economic policy at a local and national level. As Paul Hamblin, Executive Director at National Parks England (NPE), explains: “Policy in national parks is rooted in place. Being place-based means these three areas can be integrated.
In fact, national parks already operate on this basis. Every five years, each park is required to produce a Management Plan. In contrast to corporate or departmental management plans, these are written for the park as a whole, not the authority which manages it – produced through consultations with farmers, business owners and other local stakeholders. Emyr Williams says that, “these could work as a template for agricultural and business payments post-Brexit. But politicians at the centre do not take them seriously enough.” It is time they did.
So the process for solving the challenges of Brexit is already in place. However, there is a lack of clarity over what the solutions will look like.
The national parks appear to endorse a progressive system of payments for environmental management, building on the second pillar of the CAP. They have also displayed a willingness to adopt elements of the market-led approachproposed by the Green Alliance, and trialled in Defra’s Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES).
But this feels incongruous with some of the rhetoric from the farming community itself. The National Farming Union’s Vision for the Future of Farming takes account of environmental priorities, but gives equal weight to ‘productivity’ and ‘volatility’, where it concerns the commercial viability of farms.
Indeed, for all the important collaboration between parks in England, each authority seems acutely aware of the competitive pressures they face, and each has begun to prepare accordingly. The Peak District plans to emphasise its potential to boost local economic growth – a strategy for advancing the positive impact that parks can have beyond their borders, but also a way to strengthen the case for conserving the natural landscape.
The same is true of the Lake District. Richard Leafe, CEO at the park authority, says that world heritage status – which it won last weekend – will “help make the tough arguments about receiving funding after Brexit.”
National parks offer lessons in the impact of Brexit, the way to address the complex questions posed by it, and the potential barriers to success. It would be a travesty if these barriers led to the loss of truly unique landscapes. To quote one park Chief Executive I spoke to:
“What politicians don’t understand is that we only have one chance…you cannot replicate this landscape anywhere.”