Last summer, the world’s largest potash mine (in terms of volume) was approved within the North York Moors National Park – despite seemingly strong planning protections that are supposed to prevent major development in National Parks, unless there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ . These protections have been in place for more than 40 years to safeguard these iconic landscapes. Almost half of all National Trust land sits within National Parks, so their continued protection is very important to us.
This surprising and disappointing decision led us to commission Sheffield Hallam University to carry out an independent health check of major development policy in National Parks. The research team looked at more than 70 planning decisions over a period of more than 20 years. It also looked at changes to national planning policy and to policy in each of the National Park development plans, and interviewed planners in National Parks across England and Wales. It was an exhaustive study.
National parks have always face challenges from major development. In England, current proposals include:
- An application for oil extraction next to an ancient woodland in the South Downs National Park
- The Lake District National Park is currently bidding for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. A planned nuclear power station and linked electricity pylons would impact the setting of the Park, and while it is currently proposed to underground power lines within the Park itself, this is still subject to final approval
- Proposals to significantly widen roads that cut through the South Downs and Peak District National Parks
- Increased quarrying activities in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, as well as a large holiday complex on the south west edge of the Park
- The threat of fracking is looming over the South Downs, Exmoor, North York Moors and Peak District National Parks. Last year the Government voted to allow fracking below depths of 1,200m in National Parks. This will mean that not only will the Parks potentially be affected by substantial developments in surrounding areas, but energy companies could also drill beneath them.
The research found that interpretations of ‘major development’ vary between the National Parks, and decisions to approve planning applications often reflect the Government ‘mood’ at the time, with policy changes that lean toward economic growth rather than environmental protection. This varying approach has led to a number of recent major developments being granted permission that threaten the protected areas’ beauty, along with their cultural and environmental significance.
Campaign for National Parks, CPRE and the National Trust are calling for a renewed commitment from the Westminster Government to make sure National Parks in England are protected against inappropriate, damaging development. We want to see:
- The Government reconfirm its commitment to National Parks in the forthcoming 25 Year Plan for the Environment by clearly stating how they will ensure their long-term protection and enhancement. It is also essential that protections for nature are maintained after the UK leaves the European Union.
- National Park Authorities develop local plan policies that set out clearly how the protection against major development should be applied in their National Park.
- Natural England take a more active role in ensuring that National Parks are effectively protected from major development. This should include producing an annual update setting out how the major development test is being implemented and providing guidance or training for National Park Authorities to address any issues identified.
In Wales, the picture is slightly different, as the Welsh Government is currently reviewing its policies on major development in National Parks and AONBs. So our calls for action today only relate to National Parks in England.
Our Historic Environment Director, Ingrid Samuel, says, “Dealing with major development pressures has always been one of the central challenges for our National Parks, and we know further challenges lie ahead. As the Government considers the UK’s exit from the European Union, it will want to ensure we are competitive. But we think it should also focus on our natural and cultural heritage, which, as well as being much loved by people across the country, is one of our greatest capital assets. Our National Parks help make us distinctive and globally attractive as a nation. The Government’s new 25 Year Plan for the Environment offers a chance to reinforce planning protections for our finest landscapes, and to ensure wildlife is safeguarded through maintaining protections that currently exist in EU law.”
Adam Royle, Senior External Affairs Adviser