February 24, 2013 9:02 pm

Tensions surface in treasured landscapes

When Shelby Halliday heard about the campaign to block her local council’s plan for 6,000 new homes in South Lakeland in the Lake District, she was furious.

The teenager is well aware of housing pressures in the area, one of Britain’s most famous national parks and was moved to mount an angry response in a local newspaper.

“The next time you walk past a crowded playground, spare a thought as to exactly where, in the years to come, these children will live and work,” Ms Halliday wrote.

“By saying you are protecting green spaces I can only assume this will be for an ageing generation, as young people like myself will surely be forced out.”

These tensions – between young and old, locals and newcomers – are echoed throughout Britain’s 15 national parks. Ageing populations – the parks are popular retirement destinations – unaffordable property prices, absentee homeowners and low-paid, low-skill jobs mean it is becoming increasingly hard for young people to stay in these areas.

This threatens the future of some of the country’s most treasured landscape, according to the Country Land and Business Association, which represents rural property and business owners. Dorothy Fairburn a regional director of the association, warned the parks were becoming “retirement and dormitory zones”.

Stuart Burgess, chair of the Commission for Rural Communities, said the national parks were an extreme example of the challenges facing rural areas. “The question is whether we just leave these areas to be museums for the rich to enjoy,” he said.

The national parks authorities do not have an official duty to promote their local economy; their remit is focused on conservation. Mr Burgess has urged the government to change this. He identifies four main problems: affordable housing, internet access and mobile phone coverage, public transport and access to public services.

The government says its Rural Economy Growth Review will provide £180m for business and tourism development, including £20m for superfast broadband. This is seen as vital in attracting new media, technology and arts businesses into the parks, so they can diversify their economies and offer better-paid jobs.

But campaigners question central government’s interest: it is about to abolish the CRC, leaving rural communities without an independent advocacy body for the first time in a century.

As Ms Halliday’s experience shows, park residents are not necessarily united. New arrivals often oppose new housing, says Judith Derbyshire, a manager at Cumbria Rural Housing Trust: “There’s an issue of people moving in and then wanting to keep the landscape and the community in aspic.”

Housing is “the number one issue” affecting the parks, according to Mr Burgess. “Nearly every community in a national park could easily take 10 to 12 extra homes without spoiling the area, without a shadow of a doubt,” he insists. “We need to be prepared to bite the bullet.”

Building housing is a struggle, says Rachel Smith, chair of New Forest Villages Housing Association. The New Forest became a national park in 2005. “Since then they’ve been very wary of giving us housing approvals, and that has played into the hands of nimbies”.

But Nicola Thompson, a lecturer at Newcastle University’s Centre for Rural Economy, says incomers bring benefits too – these older, more experienced and well-educated new arrivals start the majority of new small businesses.

Moreover, some parks are doing better than others. Those that are succeeding, such as the Norfolk Broads, are better-connected, according to Ms Thompson. “It’s all about integration,” she says. “Peripheral rural areas face greater challenges than those that are near population centres with economic growth.”

 

TALE OF TWO PARKS

 

There is a clear disparity between the parks with some doing far worse than others. Rural economy expert Angela Thompson says this comes down to their relationship with the surrounding area: “Peripheral rural areas face greater challenges than those that are near population centres with economic growth.”

Winner: The Norfolk Broads
The Norfolk Broads is not technically classified as a national park but in practice and policy it is treated as such. It is the most urban, close to several sizable population centres and reaching right up to the outskirts of Norwich. Its population is growing steadily and visitor numbers and tourism revenue are also rising. Julie Lawrence, head of communications at the Broads Authority, said its success was driven by its close economic relationship with the surrounding area in Norfolk and Suffolk. It has also benefited from transport improvements such as the widening of the A11 in Cambridgeshire.

Loser: The Lake District
The Lake District saw one of the largest population falls of all the national parks between 2001 and 2011, as soaring house prices made the area increasingly unaffordable. Nearly one in four homes are now either holiday homes or second homes, and the remaining population is increasingly dominated by older people, particularly pensioners. The decrease in young people means local schools are closing, according to Judith Derbyshire. “Schools are the heartbeat of the valleys,” she said. “How do you keep a school going if the house prices are too high for local people to afford?”

This article is subject to a correction and has been amended.

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