Are landed interests over-represented on England’s National Park Authorities?

Image: Frank Sherwin, 1952. Science Museum collection.

This post is by Guy Shrubsole.

30% of the appointed members of England’s 9 National Park Authorities have interests in land, farming or forestry, according to a new investigation by Who Owns England. Those members with land or farming interests received almost £1.3 million in farm subsidies in 2017, an analysis of official figures shows.

With growing concerns about the declining state of nature in our National Parks, the findings raise fresh questions over whether our National Park Authorities (NPAs) make decisions that favour landowners and intensive agriculture over restoring wildlife and habitats. The primary statutory purpose of National Parks is to “conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage” within their boundaries. Yet nature is actually in a worse state inside National Parks than elsewhere: official data shows that only 26% of SSSIs by area within NPs are in favourable condition, compared with 43.5% of those outside NPs.

Unlike their US counterparts, National Parks are not owned by the state, but overwhelmingly by private and third sector landowners: 95% of the Yorkshire Dales, for instance, is in private hands. As this blog has previously revealed, just 12 huge estates own a quarter of the South Downs National Park. But their purpose, nonetheless, is to be parks for the nation as a whole – not just for local landowning and farming interests.

The Government’s Glover Review of National Parks is due to report this Autumn, and is facing calls to set aside land within National Parks for rewilding. But with vast swathes of National Park land managed for agriculture and/or belonging to grouse moor estates, such ideas are likely to face considerable opposition from landowners. The question is, with so many landowning interests represented on NPAs themselves, will the Park authorities be prepared to face them down?

Landed interests on National Parks

England has 9 NPAs – the North York Moors, Exmoor, Yorkshire Dales, Peak District, Northumberland, Dartmoor, the South Downs, the Lake District, and the New Forest – plus the Norfolk Broads Authority, which was excluded from this study.

NPAs are governed by a board of appointed members, with most being councillors nominated by local councils, and some being selected by the Secretary of State for the Environment. Whilst NPAs claim their members “represent the public interest”, appointees of course hold private interests, which they are required by law to disclose in published registers of interests.

Who Owns England reviewed the most up-to-date registers of interests for 195 appointed members on England’s 9 NPAs, recording all instances of members’ interests in:

  • Land – where members have ownership of land, whether inside or outside of the NPA boundaries. Simply owning a house or property has been discounted; to qualify for inclusion, the member has to own additional land, whether fields, woods, a farm or a large estate. In a few instances, members did not declare land ownership (because it was not within the NPA boundaries – rules for disclosure only cover land within NPAs), but it transpired that they owned land outside the NPA.
  • Farming – where members declare they are a farmer or have a farm business, whether tenanted or owner-occupier. A small number of NPA members are employed as Land Agents or Estate Managers; these were also counted as relevant interests in land and farming.
  • Forestry – where members own forestry or woodland, are employed as professional foresters, or are involved in forestry industry bodies.

You can see all the evidence gathered in this document. A summary of the findings is below:

National Park Authority How many members with interests in land, farming or forestry? Percentage of members with interests in land, farming or forestry? Total farm payments received by members in 2017
Northumberland 9 out of 18 50% £434,307
Dartmoor 7 out of 19 37% £105,146
North York Moors 7 out of 20 35% £116,908
Peak District 9 out of 28 32% £81,320
New Forest 6 out of 21 28% £9,470
Exmoor 6 out of 22 27% £108,402
Yorkshire Dales 5 out of 21 24% £150,353
Lake District 4 out of 18 22% £143,237
South Downs 6 out of 28 21% £116,436
Totals 59 out of 195 30% £1,265,549

Now, it’s obviously not wrong for farming, forestry and land-owning interests to be represented on NPAs – and there is no implication of corruption or wrong-doing by members. Indeed, some of the farmers on NPAs will undoubtedly be doing all they can to promote sustainable farming and nature. The question is whether there is systemic over-representation of such interests. The figures above strongly suggest there is: in the UK as a whole, just 1.5% of the population are employed in agriculture; and just 0.02% in forestry (17,000 out of c.60 million). Some might object that in the locality of each NPA, farming and forestry makes up a higher proportion of local jobs (though still nowhere near the levels represented). But NPAs are meant to be national parks – serving the nation as a whole, not just local interests.

Not much, it seems, has changed in this regard since Marion Shoard wrote her seminal book This Land Is Our Land (1987), in which she summarised the findings of recent studies into landed interests on National Parks: “Landowners and farmers made up an average of exactly one-third of the members of the Welsh [national] park authorities in April 1985… The situation in the English national parks is hardly different… 40% of the appointed members of the national parks in 1983-84 had as their main occupation farming or forestry.”

This long-term over-representation of landed interests on NPAs is mirrored by the concentration of land in National Parks in private hands. The table below is taken from the last big Government review of the state of our National Parks, the Edwards Report of 1991. It showed that in every National Park, well over half the land was owned by private landowners, and in some cases 90-96%. All the evidence I have seen suggests little has changed since then.

Nat Park land ownership Edwards Report 1991

Table: Edwards, R., ‘Fit for the Future. Report of the National Parks Review Panel’, Countryside Commission, 1991.

This poses big challenges for nature conservation. NPAs are heavily reliant on the goodwill of landowners to implement voluntary estate management plans to conserve the landscapes in their control. But private landowners naturally want to make a living from their land – whether that’s farming, forestry, mining or hunting – and these industries can all too readily come into conflict with nature conservation. As the seminal State of Nature report concluded in 2016, “the intensive management of agricultural land [has] by far the largest negative impact on nature, across all habitats and species”. National Parks haven’t escaped the intensification of farming. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has a ranking system for protected areas worldwide, graded from 1 to 6, with 1 being true wilderness covered by strict protections. Unsurprisingly, all the UK’s National Parks are clas­sified as Category 5 – essentially a new category created for the UK that reflects how far our National Parks are ‘cultural landscapes’ rather than wild.

But with land, farming and forestry interests so well-represented on NPAs, won’t the institutional and cultural default just be to accept that NPAs remain over-grazed, over-sprayed, intensively-managed landscapes – places, as the ecologist Derek Gow puts it, “where wildlife goes to die”?

Landed interests or national interests? 

70 years after the first National Parks legislation was passed, now is a good time to be reappraising whether our National Parks are ‘fit for the future’ and doing all they can to respond to the climate and ecological emergencies we face as a nation (and planet). The declining state of nature within their boundaries strongly suggests they are not. The government’s Glover Review into National Parks is expected to report this autumn. If it’s to grapple seriously with the problems facing National Parks, it needs to examine:

  • The over-representation of land, farming & forestry interests on NPAs, as this investigation has outlined;
  • The sheer amount of land within National Parks owned by private landowners, and whether NPAs – or other public sector bodies – should be acquiring more land within park boundaries, so as to better manage it;
  • The powers at the disposal of NPAs, such as their ability to constrain intensive agriculture within their boundaries, and their ability to promote natural regeneration and rewilding.

Isn’t it time we had National Parks that served the national interest, rather than landed interests?

One thought on “Are landed interests over-represented on England’s National Park Authorities?

  1. They certainly are. I spent 9 years as chief exec of the Dartmoor Preservation Association – a constant battle against vested interests on the National Park Authority, and against the Prince of Wales whose Duchy owns much of Dartmoor and rents it out for a huge payout to the MoD.

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