In March a post on the Peak District National Park Website advertised positions for non-executive directors of a new body called the National Parks Partnership Ltd which has been set up to " transform corporate relationships and achieve significant sponsorship for the UK’s most iconic landscapes." What the new organisation indicates, however, is a distinct move towards a system of National Parks run on commercial grounds. It's an ideological argument for a smaller state pushed through under the cover of economics, despite the mountains of evidence that National Parks bring in far more in economic terms than they cost - and that's without the health benefits and associated cost savings from encouraging people to be active.
Having already been forced into selling off valuable and iconic properties like The Roaches and Losehill Hall in the Peak District and Stickle Tarn in the Lake District the park authorities are now faced with further cuts that call their existence and ability to fulfil their statutory obligations into question. The only answer has been to look at the commercial markets for revenue - a move that's already seen National Park branded air fresheners on our supermarket shelves and this year's UK National Parks Conference sponsored by an Insurance company amongst others.
The question has to be that in the hands of an ideologically driven government how far will commercial enterprises be allowed to go? While Dartmoor National Park Authority say they will never go as far as an adopt a tor scheme how long can they guarantee it in the face of continuously. diminishing budgets? Some may say the government have already indicated their respect for National Parks in their post election announcement that fracking would be permitted from wells outside the park boundaries. Combined with recent announcements of direct government intervetion in fracking applications not decided within 3 months it's a considerable change from the pre-election safeguards that were promised. Faced with changes on this scale Dartmoor may find the choice of sponsorship is taken out of their hands.
Hit by year after year of budget cuts local authorities have already slashed their outdoor education provision, selling off one outdoor centre after another; Merthyr Council's Dolygaer Centre, Gloucester Council's Pwll Ddu Centre and Birmingham's iconic Ogwen Cottage being just a few examples. With local councils funding slashed at the same time as National Park funding is decimated the drive for "efficiency" can only result in public disastisfaction with the inevitable next step being privatisation. It's a model that's been repeated time and again throughout health and education; reduce funding, increase customer disatisfaction, privatise. It's a model that says private investment will move in and create greater wealth, but the real wealth in our National Parks isn't measured in money it's measured in inspiration and opportunity and in the ability to escape the very economic forces that dominate your working lives.
Faced with a choice of privatisation or sponsorship how long will it be before we're greeted by signs saying Welcome to the BUPA Peak National Park or the Axa Insurance Lake District National Park? And how long before those signs are on the automated admission ticket emailed from the automatic number recognition software on the camera that clocks you driving in? National Park spokesmen can promise whateber they like but the reality is they have to follow policy dictated from above and the wedge is already firmly in the door.