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Our National Parks Show How To Make Brexit Work

17/07/2017 12:02 BST | Updated 17/07/2017 12:02 BST
Alan Novelli via Getty Images

The air is crisp and cool on the gritstone crags of Stanage Edge, the prehistoric escarpment running east to west through the rolling moorland of the northern Peak District. From up here, the oppressive humidity of Brexit politics feels a thousand miles away. Out of sight, out of mind.

But Brexit could hardly be closer. Money from the European Union is woven deep into the landscape of the Peaks. Over 80% of the national park is farmed and the overwhelming majority of farms in the area depend on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) for income support. Local farming communities are poor, but without these basic payments they would be poorer still - many would be unable to eke out an existence from selling livestock on the market.

A Microcosm of Brexit

The CAP is one of the oldest and most controversial EU policy areas. It is comprised of two 'pillars' of funding, now combined into a 'Single Area Payment' which is awarded to farmers based on the size of their holding. The first pillar provides basic income support to farmers, but was originally allocated based on production. It was this which created the infamous "mountains of butter" in the 1980s, and which caused the sheep population in the Lake District to explode in the 1990s. The second, considerably smaller, pillar, rewards sustainable farming and environmental protection.

When Britain leaves the European Union, it will by default leave the CAP, though the government has agreed to continue funding the scheme up to 2020. What comes next remains an open and contentious question, which will affect the national parks more than most. Although just 1% of British people work in agriculture, 12% do in the Peak District National Park, a pattern of economic activity found across all the national parks. In Snowdonia, for example, 80% of the average farmer's salary - a shockingly low £13,000 a year - depends on European funding.

The income of these farmers is integral to the rural economy, because their land management practices keep the natural landscape accessible to the general public, which in turn draws in domestic and international tourists. Some 25% of people in the Peak District depend on tourism for their livelihoods. Directly and indirectly, farming is the lifeblood of the rural economy.

It is also the root and stem of the natural environment. Despite the damage that overgrazing has done to areas of the Lake District and other national parks, evidence suggests that the environment would suffer if farmers were unable to support themselves. Emyr Williams, Chief Executive of Snowdonia National Park Authority agrees: "without the CAP, there would be nobody to manage the landscape."

National Parks were founded on the dual principles of conservation and opening the rural environment to all. Both of these would be put at risk if farming were to disappear. As much as "rewilding" might appeal to the environmentalist ethos, it would also entail the loss of an enormously important public good: the notion that people of all backgrounds might experience, enjoy and benefit from the natural landscape. In the words of Rory Stewart OBE MP,

"National Parks are the soul of Britain. They are the centre of our imagination. When people think of Britain, wherever they are, they imagine these landscapes."

Plan for Success

If the British national parks are a microcosm of the challenges thrown up by Brexit, they are also case studies in how to solve them. Meeting Brexit head on requires the alignment of agricultural, environmental and economic policy at a local and national level. As Paul Hamblin, Executive Director at National Parks England (NPE), explains: "Policy in national parks is rooted in place. Being place-based means these three areas can be integrated.

In fact, national parks already operate on this basis. Every five years, each park is required to produce a Management Plan. In contrast to corporate or departmental management plans, these are written for the park as a whole, not the authority which manages it - produced through consultations with farmers, business owners and other local stakeholders. Emyr Williams says that, "these could work as a template for agricultural and business payments post-Brexit. But politicians at the centre do not take them seriously enough." It is time they did.

Localism also enables innovation, provided it fits within the overarching framework. If correctly managed, the regional insensitivities of the CAP need not be aped by its successor - Brexit might actually enhance the natural environment, rather than diminish it. Sarah Fowler, Chief Executive at the Peak District National Park Authority, is keen to ensure that this is the case. "We need to think about what makes the Peak District special," she says. The economic narrative from government is about spreading wealth around the country. "As the Gateway to the North, located at the confluence of several disadvantaged areas, caring for what keeps the Peak District special could play an important role in this." She adds, "companies want to move to world class landscapes."

Which Way the Wind Blows

For all this progress within the National Parks themselves, the argument over what comes next is far from settled, divided along the same lines as the Brexit debate. The national parks appear to endorse a progressive system of payments for environmental management, building on the second pillar of the CAP. They have also displayed a willingness to adopt elements of the market-led approach proposed by the Green Alliance, and trialled in Defra's Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES).

But this feels incongruous with some of the rhetoric from the farming community itself. The National Farming Union's Vision for the Future of Farming takes account of environmental priorities, but gives equal weight to 'productivity' and 'volatility', where it concerns the commercial viability of farms.The difference in emphasis is slight, but has already begun to affect the rural environment. Deterred by the administrative burden of current schemes and uncertainty over what schemes will come next, farmers have been dropping out of environmental stewardship agreements alarmingly fast. According to Sarah Fowler, coverage in the Peak District National Park has dropped from 87% of farms in 2014 to 72% in 2016 and could fall as a low as 50% by 2018/19.

This effect plays differently in the devolved regions. Although there is some cross-border collaboration, it is relatively poorly developed, leaving parks like Snowdonia exposed to the whim of politicians. In Wales, the governing party - Welsh Labour - has always had an uneasy relationship with the rural economy, preferring to focus public spending on urban deprivation in the south and west of the country. If Brexit constrains fiscal flexibility, Snowdonia may be hard pushed to make the case for funding the national park. "What politicians don't understand," says Emyr Williams, "is that we only have one chance...you cannot replicate this landscape anywhere."

Snowdonia's response has been to emphasize the health benefits that national parks offer to visitors and local populations, drawing on support from local health trusts and a wealth of scientific evidence. If politicians were to prioritise the ever-popular NHS after Britain leaves the EU, this strategy should give Snowdonia some protection.

Indeed, for all the important collaboration between parks in England, each authority seems acutely aware of the competitive pressures they face, and each has begun to prepare accordingly. The Peak District plans to emphasise its potential to boost local economic growth - a strategy for advancing the positive impact that parks can have beyond their borders, but also a way to strengthen the case for conserving the natural landscape.

The same is true of the Lake District. Richard Leafe, CEO at the park authority, says that world heritage status - which it won last weekend - will "help make the tough arguments about receiving funding after Brexit."

Local sensitivity and innovation are important and should be encouraged. But they also raise the spectre of fragmentation - national parks forced to fight individually to protect the landscapes which belong to all. It would be a tragedy if this were to transpire. Politicians in Westminster, Cardiff and Edinburgh would do well to heed the words of Sarah Fowler: "This works when we work together."