PETER FROST sees the healthy, outdoor environment which provided much needed recreation, particularly for the urban working class, come under serious threat.
Eighty-five years ago Benny Rothman (above) and his fellow young communists discovered that access to the countryside was a class issue. A recent report on Tory government National Park funding proves it still is.
Back in the 1930s thousands of young workers and even more those without work in Manchester and Sheffield knew that walking and camping in the wild mountain country close to their homes was an excellent, inexpensive, satisfying and healthy way of spending weekends and holidays.
That was the working-class view. Ewan MacColl communist actor, folk singer — in those early days public relations officer and muse for Rothman and his trespassers — even spelt it out in blatant political language.
“I may be a wage–slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday.” His line from his song The Manchester Rambler could be a quote from Frederick Engels.
The ruling class, the posh hunting and shooting landowners had an opposing view. They believed the high moorland should be private, ideal for raising grouse and other game birds for expensive and elite shooting parties.
They decided the open countryside was theirs alone and they were prepared to use force to preserve their privilege. Of course they didn’t do the defending themselves, rather they employed working-class gamekeepers to do their dirty work for them.
Rothman and five others went to jail for their principles but eventually the Kinder Trespass and the mass support it garnered won the day when the working-class action led to legislation granting access to the countryside for ordinary people. One of the most important aspects of that access would be the establishment of a network of national parks.
It is no coincidence that the first of England’s national parks was the Peak District where the Mass Trespass had been played out in the awesome landscape of the high, heather-covered highland of Kinder Scout (below).
Today there are 13 National Parks in England and Wales, each park operated by its own authority with two statutory purposes.
First, to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area and, second, to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the park’s special qualities by the public.
Everyone, including rich Tory landowners’ now pays lip service to how important the national parks are but a recent report from the Press Association shows that national parks in England have lost millions of pounds of funding from the Tory government in the past five years. Overall their funding was cut by a quarter from 2011 to 2016.
Despite some rather hypocritical and hollow promises there are more cuts to come.
In 2015, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) pledged to increase the direct grant for national parks by 1.72 per cent a year for most parks up to 2020. In fact funding by 2020 will be as much as a fifth below 2010 levels, said the study, even before inflation is taken into account.
Among the parks worst affected were the Peak District, with annual funding cut from £8.3m to £6.3m and the Lake District from £6.9m to £5.2m.
The investigation found that once inflation was taken into account cuts over the five years were even more severe, at 40 per cent in real terms.
The reductions in funding have affected parks in differing ways. The Norfolk Broads (below) had closed three out of six information centres and cut back much of its footpath maintenance. Much work is now covered by volunteers.
Dartmoor has reduced its staff by a third and various parks have had to cut bus services transporting people to attractions.
Defra certainly claims it understands the value of the parks. A Defra spokeswoman said recently: “National parks are treasured landscapes and an important part of our country’s identity, attracting 90 million visitors and generating £4 billion a year.”
She went on to claim: “We are committed to helping them thrive, which is why we have protected their budgets to 2020, committing over £350m for English national parks, AONBs (Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and public forests.”
And yet, as the figures in our box show the parks are trying to survive on less and less money.
National Park Funding 2010-11 2015-16
Broads £4.2m £3.2m
Dartmoor £4.7m £3.6m
Exmoor £4.0m £3.0m
Lake District £6.9m £5.2m
New Forest £4.0m £3.0m
North York Moors £5.4m £4.1m
Northumberland £3.3m £2.5m
Peak District £8.3m £6.3m
Yorkshire Dales £5.4m £4.1m
Source: National Parks This table does not include Welsh or Scottish National Parks nor the new English South Downs park.
Meanwhile Andrea Leadsom, the Tory minister at Defra, makes no secret of her sympathy with private landowners and their so called sporting shooting estates.
Part of her Defra ministry, Natural England issues licences to shoot buzzards and the draining and burning of fragile peat moorland are tolerated on the upland grouse moors even within the National Parks.
Tory MPs and councillors have consistently voted to allow fracking, mineral extraction and inappropriate leisure development in the parks.
Rothman saw the struggle to protect the British countryside as part of the battle between the classes all those years ago and, as the Tories and their austerity policies are constantly demonstrating today, he wasn’t wrong.
The fight must go on.
- Peter Frost was, for 10 years, a Member of the Broads Authority — the group of government-appointed trustees that run the Broads National Park.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 10 February 2017.