How National Park status threatens Lakeland communities

An Essay from within the Lake District.

The Lake District National Park is the largest in the UK. It is subject to stringent planning and development control. However, the way in which controls are interpreted and administered by the National Park Authority has always been a controversial area, dictated by changing contemporary attitudes, political correctness and the sensitivities of environmental pressure groups as much as by statute. British National Parks differ fundamentally from the globally accepted notion of what constitutes a National Park. Britain has no isolated wilderness areas. Virtually all land in the Parks is privately owned and all British Parks include communities which have existed for centuries and whose inhabitants own freehold land, homes and businesses. It was not possible therefore to create vast state-owned areas which could be immune from normal human economic activity. The conflict of interests between the British National Park Authorities and those who need to make a living in the Parks have thus become a minor battlefield.


The current custodians of the “well-being” of the Lake District National Park still derive their terms of reference from the tenets of the first “protectors” of the area, who began to organise themselves nearly 150 years ago.

As the laissez-faire economic doctrines of the mid-19th century began to lose ground, voices were raised in protest at the expansion of commerce and tourism in the Lake District. Taking their validity from the earlier romanticism of Wordsworth, by then acknowledged as a leading literary figure, these voices began to form a coherent conservationist movement. This was primarily directed against the expansion of the railways, which was seen by the protectors as an unwanted catalyst for increased tourism and commercial development.

Later, unsuccessful opposition to Manchester Corporation’s Thirlmere reservoir plans was nevertheless strong enough to enforce the utmost consideration for the landscape during construction of the aqueduct, and to bring into being the Lake District Defence Society. This subsequently fought and won battles against railway proposals by wielding considerable influence in Parliament. In their history “The Lake Counties” Marshall & Walton undertook an examination of the membership of the LDDS. They found that of nearly 600, fewer than 10 per cent of members were based in the Lake Counties, the majority being drawn from the ranks of professional and intellectual élites and wealthy industrialists from elsewhere. This formidable body of resources and expertise organised further successful opposition to road, rail and water extraction schemes.

Although the ideals which motivated the early “Defenders” are now espoused by a wider populace, there is no doubt that a powerful élitism was at work. Conspicuous then (as it is now to a lesser extent) by its absence was any form of consultation with the ordinary citizens of the district, by which is meant those whose permanent and only home was in the Lake District communities and whose sole income was derived from economic activity in the towns and on the land.

Opposition to development was not necessarily supported by these people, to whom the land was an economic resource and who, it might be considered, had a better right to be heard than was allowed to them. A few journals spoke for the local people, including the Westmorland Gazette, which had earlier described the defenders as promoting “a sort of aesthetic Enclosure Bill of their own . . . . for the benefit of men of taste”. The Gazette saw the opposition to railway expansion as “pitting the material interests of trade and capital against the immaterial enjoyments of the few”.

The Defenders did successfully oppose railway expansion. What they could not fight was the advent of the motor car and the bus. As ever greater numbers of visitors began to arrive by road, initial reaction by landowners took the form of denying access to lake shores and other popular areas. Although the landowners were their allies, this tended to weaken one of the main arguments of the Defenders, which was that the Lake District was a national asset to which “all who wanted to make the effort” should have the right of access.

So evolved the concept of the National Trust, by which means large tracts of the Lake District were eventually acquired for the benefit of the public and for preservation. It is from this historically short period of élitist reaction against early mass tourism and commercial development that current concepts of conservation begin, later to be massively strengthened by the National Parks Acts, which defined areas within which development was to be severely restricted, regardless of the land owners’ wishes or of economic need. A more fertile ground for conflict over land usage is difficult to imagine.


The National Parks Act requires that areas so designated are “conserved” for the benefit of the nation. Conservation means to preserve and to protect and many people find it difficult to apply such a concept to a naturally evolving landscape, especially one where intensive human economic activity occurs, because by definition conservation requires a starting point in time from which it attempts to restrain evolutionary forces.

This presents major difficulties, because in order to survive in a rapidly changing world, communities must adapt their land usage to current markets. Conservation attempts to inhibit this process.

If you were born, live and work in a National Park, your environment may mean far more to you in some of its aspects, and far less in others, than it does to someone who uses it occasionally purely for recreational purposes. It almost certainly will not represent a landscape to be doted upon for its romantic appeal to a possibly illusory vision of bygone bucolic bliss. It will of necessity represent territory from which to derive a living.

It can be argued that the well-being of the local working population was in the past well-served by the “protection” of the area and its consequent appeal to the wealthy and affluent educated tourist and to the aspirations of industrialists as they vied with each other in the pomposity of their Lakeland estates and holiday mansions (all built without the constraints of planning law). Such people needed servants, horsemen, gardeners and tradesmen and offered welcome, if temporary, alternatives to toil on farms, in woodlands and quarrying. So the short summer season provided an increasingly useful addition to the economy of the area.

However, it is now necessary to ask whether the late nineteenth century was the correct point in the evolution of the Lake District to impose a standstill in economic diversification, which is what the National Parks Act, as currently interpreted, effectively does because its inherited attitudes see the landscape, the vernacular architecture and the occupations of the inhabitants as they existed at that time as an ideal. Indeed, it may be necessary to ask whether there is any point in time from which such protection of an entire landscape is either possible or desirable.

The reason for raising this issue now is simple but could not have been foreseen – those rural occupations in farming, mining, quarrying, woodlands and domestic service no longer exist as major sources of employment.


So the mainstream industries which existed when the Defenders took their stand against development and to which tourism merely represented some jam on the bread, have all but disappeared. Tourism now is king. The defenders have failed, against the new freedom of mobility of millions of car owners, to sustain their vision of “Lakeland for the discerning few” and as the remotest valleys have opened up to the gaze of the masses, they blame their failure on those who make a living catering for visitors’ needs.

Commercial activity, which must continue if communities are to survive and prosper, stands accused of “ruining the Lake District”. Attempts to promote it are subjected to the severest scrutiny and objections to it from vociferous minorities have excessive influence.

Commercial activity can only exist where there is a demand. Although today demand can be artificially stimulated, the creation of a demand for a product that disappoints ends in failure. The Lake District’s unique landscape and the opportunities it offers for recreation do not disappoint millions of visitors. They take advantage of their mobility, affluence and leisure time and they come here for the “great outdoors”. Most of them stay long enough to need local food and accommodation. So it is fallacious to claim that the tourist industry generates a demand which would not otherwise exist. It may be more valid to argue that the status of “National Park” creates a greater demand than any amount of tourist facilities. No amount of promotion for an unwanted product could have sustained Lakeland’s 200 years as a successful visitor destination. (This topic begs the question as to the likely effect on the Lakeland environment of the current quest for the status of ‘World Heritage Site’, now being assiduously pursued by the government and the NPA.)

The reality is that the demise of woodland industries, the mechanisation of quarrying and farming and the disappearance of domestic service have left the working communities of the Lake District with nothing but tourism on which to base their economy. In the post-war climate of economic growth and the pursuit of wealth, they can hardly be blamed for maximising tourism’s potential and ironically another arm of Government, the Tourist Board, encourages them to do so.

However, tourism is not, as much recent research has shown, a good industry to have to depend on. An excess of it has damaging environmental and social effects. When mass tourism becomes the only industry, then disintegration of communities follows. With the demise of other employment, this is precisely what we now face, with no prospect of being helped or even permitted to diversify into other fields.

So it may be more accurate to say that tourism, with its environmental impact severely controlled, is not damaging the Lake District landscape unacceptably, whilst giving the country as a whole what it wants. But this is to ignore its effect on Lakeland communities.

In every other area of Britain, local authorities have a responsibility for economic development and a large part of their brief is to promote a strong labour market, encourage new skills and to reduce economic dependence on single industries by encouraging new employers in new fields of enterprise. In the Lake District, the responsible authority for employment, Cumbria County Council, does nothing other than give grant aid to the Tourist Board. Since land use and development control is out of its hands, it can claim that any attempt to promote other fields of enterprise would fail and it is only too pleased to divert slim resources elsewhere. The view is that Lakeland has tourism, so does not need help, and that development there is unacceptable anyway. This means, for the Lakeland communities, that they either have tourism or they have nothing.


Who then, speaks for the people of Lakeland? The National Park Authority has a statutory “duty” to foster the interests of local communities – but only if the cost of so doing is “reasonable”. This is a wonderful example of bureaucratic fudge. Nowhere are the words “foster”, “interests” or “reasonable” defined. So for the purposes of any serious commitment to a secure economic future for the Lake District communities, the NPA can be ruled out. Its slender resources are stretched enough conserving the landscape and controlling its use. Its prime function is to see that little if any development takes place.

So it seems clear that there is no public authority with any meaningful responsibility for this matter. In fact, those authorities who might elsewhere be required to promote economic diversity are the very ones who are at this moment engaged enthusiastically in promoting traffic reduction measures which may, to the delight of the latter day defenders, cause a huge reduction in tourist revenues.

The lower tiers of local authority have no control over development policy and often include a significant number of incoming retired people whose primary concern is not for the needs of the local working population.

What has to be acknowledged is that National Park priorities are incompatible with the need to maintain balanced local communities, which depend on a diversity of business and employment opportunities, outward-looking cultural activities and a politically and socially active population of all age groups. Instead of this, our communities are constrained to depend on an industry with generally low job satisfaction, unsocial working hours which disrupt family life, and low pay and opportunities, the result being that talented and ambitious youngsters must leave the area. Because tourism nonetheless prevents high unemployment, national and European funding for development aid is unavailable.

Entrepreneurial instinct, instead of being harnessed to create diversity, is forced to operate in the narrow field of tourism-based service or trade. There is little chance, for instance, for anyone to create modern clean enterprises with growth potential where local people could earn a high living wage, sufficient to allow them to buy local over-priced homes, with a career structure to encourage talented youngsters to remain in the area. Any such proposals would be crushed at birth by National Park priorities, backed no doubt by an articulate minority of the resident retired who have entered local councils and amenity groups in order to prevent “unwanted” development. Local houses fill with more and more incoming retired people who, as they displace local youngsters, seem to look only backwards to the “glorious” days of the Defenders, and who demand that the Lake District be an antidote to everything they dislike about the modern world. It is as if the Lake District, for historic reasons perhaps to do with the industrial revolution, symbolises a Sabbath, a sacred holiday for people who visit it (and retire to it) – a place of no work . . . where nature provides . . . and one worships. To maintain this sense of Sabbath it is necessary to hide the signs of work and cover over as much as possible the fact that human work makes nature provide. This of course means trying to hide the local people and that is precisely what the priorities of the National Parks Act do.


The result of these current policies can only be a continuing sapping of the vitality of Lakeland communities, as young people who need a future are replaced by those waiting to die and tourism constantly violates a community’s need for cohesion, a little privacy and territorial integrity.

Those who live, work and raise families here need a vision of the future for Lakeland, not of the past. We do not need restored cobbles and Victorian street furniture. We are not museum pieces and we do not want to live in a museum. We need local authorities with the imagination to look forward, not backwards. We should not be denied the benefits of modern design and materials, modern art, modern industry and the prospect of sharing in what we all hope will be a progressive future. We need to be able to produce goods and services that people can buy without coming in their cars to get them. The people of Lakeland are talented, ingenious and immensely practical. They are not all cooks, maids and washers of dishes. They want to make good and useful things, as they always have done.

We should no longer have to accept arbitrarily imposed limits on our potential to create wealth in our own communities just because they are situated in an otherwise beautiful environment. We should no longer suffer closures and restrictions on our local road systems, so that we are treated as having no more right nor reason to be here than holiday-makers. Elsewhere, local people are exempted from such restrictions. We should no longer be told to roof and clad with local slate, for the benefit of the nation, with no offer of help towards the considerable extra cost. It is time for official attitudes to change.


The present landscape of the Lake District, with its largely cleared valley bottoms and the grassy lower fellsides, capped by the wilder rocky tops, owes its existence to economic activity, mainly involving the clearance of ancient forest for timber and fuel and to create grazing and agricultural land. The continued existence of this landscape as we know it and as the National Park Authority wishes to conserve it, depends entirely on the continuation of what is now an unprofitable economic activity – hill farming. If grazing of the valleys and fellsides by sheep were to cease, a reversion to bracken, scrub and natural reforestation would rapidly follow.

The potential demise of hill farming, as a result of the possible abandonment of farming by a new generation who can see no future in it, poses a far greater threat to the current aims of conservation than tourist traffic. It is difficult to envisage how, even if sufficient incentives or subsidies were supplied to enable hill farming to continue, enough skilled people in the farming community would want to live merely as caretakers of the landscape, paid a wage to keep it all looking just as it has done in since the early days of the Defenders. The essence of farming, to make a living by making the land useful and productive in crops and livestock, would be gone.

No clear answers to this threat are emerging and it may be that there are none, which would represent a massive hole in the dam which attempts to hold back the evolution of the Lakeland landscape. This hypothesis is included here merely to highlight the view that conservation of a natural environment is ultimately impossible and that concessions to time and economics must inevitably be made.


There can be few people who would advocate consigning the fells, valleys and lake shores of this area to the mercy of unrestricted development. For this, the Defenders must be thanked and such a policy is not advocated here. But there is a strong case for excluding the larger communities and their immediate environs from the all-encompassing restrictions applied to the National Park as a whole, freeing them to compete industrially and economically on level terms with the rest of Britain and thus revitalising them and reducing their dependence on car-borne tourists.

We need clean well paid jobs where we live, in a diversity of industries of a type which could be accommodated with low environmental impact, such as “business parks” could provide. Many local people would support measures to reduce tourist traffic if their jobs did not depend on it. If this means rethinking prohibitions on development in some areas, then that nettle should be grasped. There are only two other alternatives. One is that we will continue to choke on the fumes of tourist traffic plus the fumes of our own cars which are now needed three to a family sometimes so that we can commute to work. The other is that tourism will be discouraged with nothing to take its place. Both alternatives will hasten the decline of our communities.

The vociferous calls for action now against “excessive” traffic should be considered more coolly by the authorities. “Excessive” is a matter of opinion. There is no gridlock and immediate action is not imperative. There is no crisis. If we remove questionable constraints on economic diversification, a solution could well evolve as excessive dependence on tourism diminishes.

There is feeling that current traffic management policy promotes a vested interest in exaggerating problems, prolonging the process of consultation, and fostering improbable “solutions” in order to qualify for government grants.

As we enter the 21st century, the nineteenth century élitist reflex reaction to development proposals, which still remains fundamental to current conservationist attitudes, should not continue to prevail to the detriment of local working people who cannot be blamed for thinking that the needs of wildlife, botanical species and the wishes of the city dweller and the resident retired get more attention than they do and that much of the thrust of current policies inevitably, if not deliberately, discriminates against their community and economic interests.

Paul Renouf
Bracklyn, Millans Park
Cumbria LA22 9AG.
Tel.015394 34411.
3 July 2000