The Exmoor challenge
PUBLISHED: 16:36 30 July 2014 | UPDATED: 16:36 30 July 2014
As Exmoor National Park celebrates its 60th anniversary, chief executive Nigel Stone has no hesitation whatsoever when it comes to naming the park authority’s greatest achievement.
Put simply, the fact that Exmoor today is still the area of rugged beauty that persuaded a strangely reluctant government to award national park status in 1954 is, for the man at the helm, the prime reason for celebrating the diamond jubilee.
It could, he says, have been very different, if proposals to cover the central plateau of the moor with fir plantations and convert acres of the incomparable heather-covered wilderness into pasture, put forward with serious intent during the first decades of the national park’s existence, had come to fruition.
“Exmoor has faced a lot of challenges in its 60 year existence,” Dr Stone said. “The influence of the National Park, both in the days when it was controlled by Devon and Somerset county councils and since it became a free-standing authority, has helped fend off the threat of extensive afforestation and conversion to farmland.
“If the authority had not used its influence to oppose these proposals, in partnership with local people and bodies such as the Exmoor Society, we would have been looking at a very different landscape today in the central moorlands.”
The first national parks in England and Wales, the Peak District, the Lake District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor, came into being in 1951, followed a year later by the Pembrokeshire Coast and the North York Moors.
By 1954, the then government seemed to believe the list was growing too quickly. The candidates that year were the Yorkshire Dales and Exmoor, and Nigel Stone believes that it was touch and go whether the South West representative, divided geographically between Somerset (two thirds) and Devon (a third) would actually be created.
Thankfully, it was, governed initially by separate committees for each county, then a joint Somerset/Devon committee and, in 1997, established as an authority in its own right.
The primary duties of the Park Authority are to conserve and enhance Exmoor’s natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, and to provide opportunities for greater understanding and enjoyment of the park’s special qualities.
In addition to these two bedrock duties is a third priority; to foster the social and economic wellbeing of Exmoor’s communities.
Nigel Stone is proud of the park authority’s record of working in partnership with marketing and other organisations to raise Exmoor’s tourism profile. The redevelopment of the Pavilion on Lynmouth seafront as a National Park information centre has helped regenerate the resort.
He is perhaps especially proud of the authority’s record in lobbying successfully for the park’s agricultural community. ENPA pressed hard for upland farmers, a traditional and key element in the life of the park, to be treated in the same way as lowland farmers as far as the single farm payment is concerned.
Dr Stone is confident that the lobbying has succeeded and that parity will in future be enshrined in the Common Agricultural Policy. “Exmoor National Park has a close link with DEFRA, and the 85 per cent of our funding that comes from government is channelled through that body,” he explained.
“In that sphere, as in many other areas, a major contribution of the park authority is that we act as an extra voice for Exmoor.”
The earliest national parks had a status as planning boards from the outset, and Exmoor too eventually became the planning authority within its boundaries. To this responsibility has been added in recent years the task of implementing the Countryside and Rights of Way acts.
Planning is probably the ENPA activity which brings the authority into the closest contact with park residents. Inevitably, some planning decisions are controversial, but Nigel Stone believes the authority goes out of its way to be helpful.
“With 95 per cent of planning applications, we try and find a positive way forward, and we have a higher ratio of approvals than most other authorities. The key to our planning policy is to try and balance what people would like to do with our environmental responsibilities.”
Looking ahead to the future, Dr Stone believes a major and pressing challenge, dovetailing with the authority’s responsibility to foster the wellbeing of the national park’s communities, lies in the field of improved electronic communication.
“Really viable and sustainable communities need efficient broadband and better mobile phone facilities. Effective communication, which at present does not always exist in the national park area, is a real priority, and affects the whole of the park community.
“Schoolchildren in our often remote towns, villages and farms are increasingly reliant on the internet and other computer facilities to do their homework, whilst farmers need the web to make their returns to DEFRA and other bodies.
“One of the greatest advances in recent times has been the ability to demonstrate that the infrastructure necessary for better electronic communication, in terms of masts and other facilities, can be provided without damaging the landscape.
“The Exmoor National Park authority has a major role to play in helping our many partner organisation maintain essential services in what is an isolated area. Better communications will play a vital part in achieving our aims and must rank as one of the greatest challenges we face in the years to come.”