My invigorating stroll across the hills in the Breamish Valley last weekend to support national parks is in direct line of succession to the great Kinder Scout trespass in 1932.
Admittedly, on this occasion, the fifty odd walkers taking part were not involved in any fisticuffs with gamekeepers. As far as I am aware, there were no arrests and there were no apparent Communists like those from Manchester who organised the Kinder trespass.
Protest walks were held in all the national parks but we may still not enter rambling mythology in quite the same way as the 400 protesters claiming the right of access to the highest point in the Derbyshire Peaks back then.
The Kinder protest and the subsequent work of the Ramblers Association led to the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act passed by the Labour government in 1949 which set up the series of 15 national parks. New Labour subsequently passed the ‘right to roam’ legislation in 2000, honouring a commitment of their 1997 election manifesto.
Northumberland National Park was established in 1956. It is the largest, least visited and most sparsely populated of all the national parks. It is a quasi local authority responsible for planning, environmental protection, farming, industry and tourism. It has been designated by the international travellers magazine Conde Naste as one the five top national parks in the world.
No wonder. It contains 424 ancient monuments including Hadrians Wall; the unique landscape of the remote Cheviot Hills and the newly established Dark Sky Park in Kielder Forest. We should take greater pride in these treasures on our doorstep.
So why the fuss of protest walks? Since 2010, the Coalition government has cut the budgets for all the national parks from £56m to £45m. Paltry sums in relation to government expenditure.
In Northumberland, the budget has reduced from £3.5m to £2.1m. Two of the three visitor centres have been closed; the apprenticeship scheme abandoned, ranger services cut and education and engagement activities reduced. Staff numbers have fallen from 68 to 48. This is only the story so far.
Northumberland National Park now believes it has “a bare minimum of resources” to operate. The sponsoring government department is DEFRA which will have to save up to 40% of overall costs in the lifetime of this government.
The Park Authority has responded positively. It is pressing ahead with ambitious plans for The Sill; the proposed new visitor centre at Once Brewed which will create jobs and generate funds even though a further £1m has still to be raised.
It has become more entrepreneurial. The conversion of the former head office in Hexham into start up business hubs was praised by the Rural Affairs Minister, Rory Stewart, recently. It has set up a charitable foundation and already received two legacies form people who love the uplands.
National parks cost 85 pence per person per year. There are 90 million visits to the parks each year. I have long been amazed that days walking on well maintained hillsides are entirely free of charge, and usually without a collection box to be seen. Where else can you get such great days out without digging in your pocket?
The most depressing aspect of draconian cuts to the national parks is that no one has consciously set out to scale back the stewardship of our most outstanding countryside. Access to the countryside may be a class issue, but this government has not got it in for the countryside. It is an unintended and little known consequence of austerity.
It may not be the most serious consequence when compared to the closure of libraries and swimming pools. Elswick Pool is the latest to pull the plug. It pales into insignificance against the squeeze on social care for the elderly or the loss of housing benefit to young people.
It is small fry compared to the global threat of climate change where marchers will gather over the weekend of 28 – 29th November to protest on the eve of the all important Paris conference. Put the date in your diary now.
People have lived in the Northumberland National Park for 10,000 years. Although over half the ancient sites are deemed at risk, they will survive to be enjoyed by the next generation. The flora and fauna will flower another year without our help. But the wild places of Northumberland are part of our inheritance and we should be ashamed of neglecting them.
How has it come to this? In a headlong rush to balance the nation’s books, we have cut back the small amount of money given to preserve the landscape.
Write to your MP and propose a moratorium on cuts to national parks funding for the lifetime of this parliament and the opportunity for them to bid for european and enterprise funding that will diversify their income.
A few weeks after the mass trespass at Kinder, and less reported in rambling history, 10,000 people turned out to protest. Perhaps our modest walk in the Cheviots will see a similar upsurge of support. It really is up to you.