Rural campaigner Colin Speakman says the Yorkshire Dales National Park is both a powerful brand and an inspiration, and it needs to take the lead.

TO many people in living in the Yorkshire Dales, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority is just an irritating planning body that does not let people do everything they like with their homes and their land. But in fact, contrary to popular misunderstanding, life isn’t so very different outside the National Park boundaries where local authorities have a difficult and unenviable task of ensuring our towns and countryside are not destroyed and damaged by sprawling, unplanned development. When you look at a beautiful, unspoiled landscape within or outside the Dales, it is often because some thoughtful planning officers and their committees have prevented an eyesore from being built there.

But the National Park is far more than a local planning authority. It has unique and important powers, given to it by Parliament, to do many other key tasks to manage and protect the Yorkshire Dales and to encourage its enjoyment by both visitors and the local community. Such activity also supports local jobs and business and brings prosperity to the area. Core tasks including protecting wildlife habitats and biodiversity, looking after landscape features, ancient buildings and archaeology, running information centres and car parks, managing visitors, promoting sustainable forms of tourism and vitally important, managing rights of way and public access areas.

There is always far more to do than available budgets allow. To decide where priorities should lie, the authority categorises its annual work programme in terms of allocation of staff and budget cash resources, into 14 different tasks areas, each further divided into three broad groups in terms of resources. These are labelled Priority, Adequate and Limited Programmes. These categories are reviewed regularly.

Whilst “Priority” means that these programmes are at the top of the agenda for staff and money, 'adequate' or even 'limited' still means that these areas of work will be delivered. It is always important to bear in mind that much of the authority’s work is achieved by working closely in partnership with others so that in fact even a “limited” programme may be delivered with contributions from other public bodies, commercial companies and voluntary bodies.

It was good to note that at a meeting of the authority at the end of September, it was decided to upgrade Access for All from “Adequate” to “Priority” level, reflecting a growing awareness that National Parks are indeed created for everyone to enjoy. This reflects Government priorities for National Parks as outlined in the recent eight point plan for National Parks which recognises the value outdoor recreation in National Parks has for the health and well-being of the nation. Spending money encouraging outdoor activity in National Parks reduces pressure on the National Health Service, not least helping reduce the obesity epidemic resulting from serious physical inactivity.

So, what will these new priorities for Access for All be for the next few years? There will be projects to connect young people with the natural world, and to provide activities for family groups and under-privileged groups. There will be more educational events such as Dark Sky stargazing and guided walks, More easy walks for the less active and agile will be promoted, with a focus on routes for those with limited mobility – Miles Without Stiles, replacing difficult to climb stiles with pedestrian gates, a key issue for an ageing population. Young Rangers groups will be encouraged to get young people involved with conservation tasks and footpath repair work. Trampers – specially adapted mobility scooters which can cross rough terrain – will be made available for those with serious mobility problems. There will be more promotion for appropriate outdoor recreational activities including cycling in the National Park – and especially welcome is proposed support for organisation who are helping to provide public transport access to the National Park.

Welcome as all these measures are, the concern, as always, must be that the budget available for all these activities at just £140,000 is extremely modest, especially as staff costs of £126,000 reduce this to a mere £14,000 against which it is expected income of around £36,000 will be generated, leaving just £50,000 to pay for everything. But if you are a young person of limited means or live in a deprived household or survive on a basic state pension in a housing estate in Burnley, Bradford or Leeds, none of these these worthwhile activities are available if you can’t physically travel to the Dales. Yet these people don’t have a voice to allow their needs to be communicated to the Park Authority

Putting this into context, the Dales and Bowland CIC who now manage - on behalf of the Yorkshire Dales Society - the Sunday DalesBus network to the National Park, must raise at least £80,000 annually - the gap between fares collected and senior pass reimbursements - to maintain the present, extremely popular DalesBus network at its present level.

The answer surely lies in partnership. It is clear that the Authority has not nearly enough resources to do all that the nation requires. The 14 valued and worthwhile programmes will only be achieved if the authority can persuade other active partners to share the opportunity to make a real difference to peoples’ lives. Key is working with urban communities - with schools, clubs, community centres and colleges - to create awareness and understanding of National Parks and how to access them.

The Yorkshire Dales National Park is a powerful brand and inspiration. It needs to lead.