Martin Hesp: Preserve this precious place
As we develop increasingly large swathes of the planet it is important to preserve and take special care of certain areas that have high environmental or scenic value. Most people agree with this notion and one direct result is that many millions each year enjoy visiting places like national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
The West Country – which has two national parks and a handful of AONBs – is a region more acquainted than most with the art of countryside preservation. And we know that the physical appearance of our green and comely acres has a direct relationship with the region's most important wealth provider, tourism.
At the same time we are aware that our landscapes are not only working places today, but that they have hosted human endeavours for a very long time – which teaches us that environmental preservation should never involve setting entire panoramas in aspic.
My guess is that most of this newspaper's readers would agree with the general non-contentious nature of the belief that it is a good thing some special places are protected from the attentions of those who would concrete over everything.
Having said that, we do know that the present Government is zealous in its drive to sweep away planning controls that stand in the face of economic development, even if that comes at a cost to the environment. However, even our present build-at-any-cost-as-long-as-someone-might-get-rich brigade has rowed back from doing anything that would harm national parks and AONBs.
So that's all right then... Isn't it? Unfortunately not. It seems there are still a few decision-makers who would hold even the most treasured rural crown jewels to ransom. Remarkably, one of them is an MP whose West Country constituency includes a large chunk of one of our two national parks. Last week the Western Daily Press carried an opinion piece written by Ian Liddell-Grainger – Conservative MP for the Bridgwater constituency which contains a swathe of Exmoor – and in it he appeared to so completely misunderstand what national parks are for that my telephone didn't stop ringing for days as angry local readers wanted to know if I would be seeking to redress some kind of balance. So here I am doing just that.
The general starting point of the MP's opinion piece applauded the fact that a planning decision made by Exmoor National Park Authority had been overturned by an inspector, apparently "in conjunction with recent statements by Planning Minister Nick Boles which point to a loosening of the current restrictive attitudes to developments within national parks."
Mr Liddell-Grainger's article – applauding a couple who had won permission for agricultural buildings on Exmoor, despite local objections – was way off the mark regarding some of the basic facts and statistics applying to a large part of his constituency.
He claimed Exmoor was the "smallest and quietest" and "least-visited" of the UK's national parks – "so the tourist industry hardly delivers a regular pot of gold to the local community"...
Wrong, wrong and wrong. The latest VisitEngland figures show that Exmoor – not the smallest, the Broads is – has more visitors than five other national parks. Moreover, a total of £107million is spent by tourists in the national park area each year – more than is spent in four other park areas.
"It is generally accepted that tourism is the single largest component of the economy," said an Exmoor National Park Authority spokesman when I asked him about visitor-spend versus agricultural income. "That said, the two, of course, are inextricably linked – farming forms the landscape which visitors come to see." He told me the ENPA's latest survey estimates that tourism supports 1,774 direct jobs and a further 285 indirect jobs. "Out of a population of 10,200 this is pretty significant – especially as many are economically inactive," he said. Before Mr Liddell-Grainger's article appeared I was talking to a man whose family has farmed the same Exmoor hillsides for seven generations. David Bawden, of Cloggs Farm, Hawkridge, told me: "I think it's to our advantage being in a national park. It is a very special place. It takes a special amount of looking after – we've been trying to do that for a very long time and now I think we've got it right."
This week I am joining a group of Dartmoor National Park farmers and business leaders on a trip to Switzerland where they'll be learning more about how their special geographic status can aid the local economy and give them a special edge. These people seem to be able to understand the many opportunities national park status can bring.
Mr Liddell-Grainger – who lives inside an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but doesn't seem to have the same wrath reserved for the ring-fenced nature of such places – seems to want Exmoor's national park status to be degraded in order for it to "catch up with the rest of Devon and Somerset". The majority who live in the national park – like me – understand that we are lucky and that this rare status gives the area and its locals multiple opportunities for generations to come. We need to look after the place, and not trash it in the name of short-term gain for a few individuals.