Further delays in Yorkshire Dales and Lake District expansion plans

Carlin Gill in the Howgill Fells, Cumbria. The M6 motorway beyond and Lake District Fells on horizon

Carlin Gill in the Howgill Fells, Cumbria. The M6 motorway beyond and Lake District Fells on horizon - Credit: Alamy

Protests grow as ministers delay a decision on the future shape of the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District national parks. Terry Fletcher reports

David Butterworth 'We've still been given no indication of when a decision will be made.'

David Butterworth 'We've still been given no indication of when a decision will be made.' - Credit: Archant

It started off with high expectation but as the months have passed that turned first to disappointment then impatience, bewilderment, frustration and ultimately an exasperation that is now hardening into cold anger. The cause of all this emotion is a deafening official silence on the future of plans to extend the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District national parks.

The proposed new areas would take each park almost to the M6 motorway where a narrow corridor would be left through which the M6 and A6, the main West Coast railway and high voltage power lines would squeeze. The present park boundaries were drawn up just after the Second World War and represented a hotchpotch of compromises between water boards and the now defunct West Riding and Westmorland County Councils. It meant that nonsensically half the Howgill Fells were in the Dales park and half left out along with Wild Boar Fell, Mallerstang and the Orton and Barbon Fells while huge swathes of common land to the west of the A6 were also denied protection. Ever since, campaigners have considered the boundaries ‘unfinished business’ especially now many of the historic arguments no longer apply.

In 2009 the government’s then countryside advisor, Natural England, began consulting on the plans and by 2012 an overwhelming 93 per cent of those who responded were in favour. A public inquiry ended in June 2013 and it is almost two years since its results were passed to ministers for their final decision. Since then the file has apparently been gathering dust in someone’s in-tray.

Questions about what is causing the delay are brushed away by the rural affairs department, Defra, with a bland prepared statement that an announcement will be made ‘in due course’, provoking even more anger and accusations that ministers and civil servants are treating the parks with contempt.

The second anniversary of the inquiry was marked by a letter in The Times signed by conservationists, including the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Campaign for National Parks and Dr Malcolm Petyt, vice president of the Yorkshire Dales Society. It reminded the government that its election manifesto had included a commitment for stronger landscape protection and suggested it might demonstrate that commitment by ‘finally taking action’ and approving the new boundaries.

There was no response from Defra and Mark Corner, new chairman of the Yorkshire Dales Society, was a little more blunt. He said: ‘The society is very frustrated with the unacceptable delay. Honesty about why a decision has not been made would show some respect to the vast majority of people who want the extension so that this majestic part of our country can benefit from the protection and enhancement that national park designation would give it. For goodness sake, let’s get on with it.’

David Butterworth, chief executive of the Dales park is equally concerned. He said: ‘We’ve still been given no indication of when a decision will be made.’

One theory for the delay is that national parks are partly funded by government and that at a time of public spending cuts the Treasury is blocking extra cash to pay for bigger parks. Mr Butterworth said: ‘All governments have been thrifty with national parks but I hope that’s not the reason. In government terms we are talking peanuts. I hope they can see beyond the pence it would cost to the major benefits it would bring to the new areas.

Most Read

‘As things stand it’s making it almost impossible to plan. Our budget has already been cut by about 40 per cent and it looks as though there are more cuts to come. If those turn out to be as grim as people have speculated it may mean cuts in staff. We’ve already lost staff and it would be a nonsense if we were to lose more only to discover next year that we need them for an extended park. We need to know what is happening to do our job.’

One possibility, he said, might be for the government to signal approval for the extensions even if it did not take effect straight away.

Douglas Chalmers, director of the Friends of the Lake District, which has spearheaded the Lakes2Dales coalition of campaigning groups, added: ‘It is incredibly frustrating that we still await a decision after such a significant amount of time and money was invested by organisations and individuals and even by government itself. It’s high time it confirmed the proposal. I can’t think of any other inquiry, except maybe Iraq and Northern Ireland where it just disappears for this length of time. They don’t even have to do any work on it because it’s already been done for them.

‘If the extensions are approved visitors will come and bring money to the area but until there is approval businesses can’t invest. Some people were for and some against and until we have a decision they do not know what to do. Everyone is in limbo and that can’t go on,’ he said.