Between 1951 and 2009, 15 parks across the UK received the highest protected status. These are the Premier League clubs of the great outdoors. I am talking, of course, about our glorious national parks.
The United Kingdom’s 15 included 10 in England, three in Wales and two in Scotland, allocated between 1951 (the Peak District being the first) and 2009 (the South Downs being the youngest). But in that half century of national park designations, two had their bids rejected. Why so?
In 1965, the National Parks Committee drew up plans for what would have then been the 11th in the United Kingdom: the Cambrian Mountains National Park. Following the coronation of Snowdonia (1951), the Pembrokeshire Coast (1952) and the Brecon Beacons (1957), it was set to be the fourth in Wales.
When the bid faced fierce opposition from the Country Landowners’ Association, the committee ploughed on. But in 1973, amid growing grumbles from Westminster, the Secretary of State for Wales, Peter Thomas, rejected the order.
No explanation was given, although he suggested that the area could instead one day be designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Championship of the great outdoors. Fifty years on, local conservation groups still fight for Wales’s upland backbone to receive protective status.
The Cambrian Mountains Society said that the region ticks many of the boxes for designation – the landscape has a “coherent character, distinct from the more mountainous north and the undulating lowland areas to the east and west,” a spokesperson said. It also has an IDA International Dark Sky Park, has few modern roads crossing the landscape, boasts special areas of conservation and lists more than 50 areas of scientific interest. Still, clearly, not enough.
The spokesperson added: “It’s a classic example of a place serendipitously preserved through being overlooked, but which could [in the future] could so easily be destroyed by piecemeal development.”
The Isle of Harris met a similar fate. In 2009, 72 per cent of Harris residents voted for a motion to establish an Isle of Harris National Park. The proposal stated that the island has “outstanding concentrations of geology, landforms, habitats and species of high international value,” adding that “the hills, moorland, beaches and offshore islands provide a nationally recognised land and seascape.”
National park status, it said, would help to boost the local population, attract jobs, encourage tourism and to stop the exodus of young people – an enduring problem on the island. However, the pitch was thrown out on the basis that the local authority did not support the bid, and in 2010 the Western Isles Council concluded that a convincing case had not been made.
Since Harris’s failed bid, other parts of the country have taken it upon themselves to take on an alternative sort of national park status. In June 2019, London was given the title of the UK’s first National Park City. The idea is that urban areas contain the world’s fastest growing habitats and surprisingly diverse wildlife populations, which warrant protection; London has more peregrine falcons than the Peak District, for example.
“National parks are about celebrating and enjoying a landscape that has been created thanks to the work of many people over a large amount of time,” said self-proclaimed “guerilla geographer” Daniel Raven-Ellison, the man behind the campaign. “In London we’ve had hundreds of years of people protecting, enclosing and celebrating green spaces, planting trees and looking after wildlife.”
National parks are now found on British waters, too. The Blue Marine Foundation has launched a project for the designation of so-called National Marine Parks. In 2019, the Plymouth Sound National Marine Park was unveiled as a form of recognising (but not officially protecting) the history and biodiversity of the waters, which are home to more than 1,000 species.
“This high-quality environment supports a naval dockyard, commercial ports, a tourist destination, a playground, a marine research cluster, a base for a fishing fleet and fish market, somewhere to unwind or get an adrenaline high and wildlife that is internationally important. Nowhere could be more deserving of special recognition,” said Sue Dann of Plymouth City Council.
The Blue Marine Foundation hopes for 10 more National Marine Parks in the coming years, with the Severn Estuary, the Isles of Scilly and the greater Thames London Gateway among the proposed areas. These sit alongside the existing “blue belt” of 91 marine conservation zones around the English coast, designated by the government and therefore with a bit more legal heft.
Along with these marine and city national parks, and despite the failures of Harris and the Cambrian Mountains, it could be that there are more official national park allocations in the not-too-distant future.
The Government’s nature agency, Natural England, in 2021 proposed that the Chiltern Hills and the Cotswolds, both currently AONBs, should become national parks. The move would increase the size of UK parklands by 30 per cent, the biggest expansion since the creation of the UK national parks network in 1951.
“What’s vital going forward is we continue to invest in these special places so that they can build on the legacy of the last 75 years to deliver more for nature, communities and the visitors to enjoy these truly wonderful places,” said a spokesperson for National Parks England.
There are green shoots suggesting that the UK’s national parks will continue to grow and expand in years to come. But while you paddle in the Severn Estuary National Marine Park, or walk the hills of the Chiltern Hills National Park, spare a thought for Isle of Harris and the Cambrian Mountains whose failed applications, for one reason or another, remain in a small and exclusive league of their own.