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The Future of the Northumberland Uplands Forum Highlights Action for National Park


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Strong calls for action on education, climate change and the local rural economy were heard at Northumberland National Park Authoritys first public Forum at the Cheviot Centre in Wooler last night (Thursday 15th October).

Members of the public and representatives of the North Easts agencies came together to hear Tony Gates, Chief Executive of Northumberland National Park Authority, report on the Authoritys work and to raise and debate the way forward for the hill country. Northumberland National Park, which covers twenty per cent of the county, has taken on the role of advocate for all of its upland rural communities.

The evening opened with a personal video message from Defra Minister, Hugh Irranca-Davies, who said that he was delighted that Northumberland National Park had responded to his wish to see greater public understanding of and involvement in the running of National Parks. He hoped that the Forum would be a great success and the first of many.

The Forum was moderated by Peter Jackson who, as a board member of ONE Northeast, Northumberland County Councillor and a farmer himself, was able to bring an experienced but independent view to proceedings.  He listed the impact of climate change, tourism, the quality of access for everyone and the vigour of rural communities as topics for discussion.

Tony Gates reported on the progress that the Authority has made in the past year against a number of indicators and called on the public to put forward suggestions for measurements that would be most relevant to them.  He also gave a snapshot of the state of health of the National Park itself.  Points that were particularly noted by people in the room were that the Authority had committed to goals for community-scale renewable energy across the National Park in its recently-launched management plan, and that it would be developing learning opportunities through the College in the Park scheme.

Other points that prompted a response were the fact that awareness of Northumberland National Park is very low on a national scale (only 3%), but that this National Park ranks exceptionally highly for pure water, biodiversity, tranquillity and dark skies.

A powerful point was made by Martin Howatt, Director of the Uplands for Natural England, who said that a massive effort needed to be made to explain the value of the uplands to the British public, and gain acceptance that these social benefits would need to be maintained with public money.   For example, few people realised that 70 per cent of the countrys drinking water was sourced in National Parks and that they were the key to frontline efforts to lock up carbon and control water flow.  He said more trees were needed.

Mark Carr from the Alnwick School Partnership said that the key to raising awareness about the value of protected upland landscapes was by enabling the regions children to learn and understand from an early age, and by making school visits part of the curriculum.  By engaging the young, you are more likely to appeal to the adults.  The National Park should have an education centre, he added.

The learning theme was echoed by Rachel Ellis-Jones of Northumberland College who said that learning should continue at all ages, with rural skills being taught in the National Park to ensure that people would continue to be able to live and work in the countryside.

Several local farmers spoke to the assembled group about the primary importance of farming to both the open, grazed appearance of the hills, to food production and to the existence of rural communities and the facilities they provided for visitors.  Johnny Wilson, who farms in the Breamish Valley in the National Park, said that farming would have to evolve because times have changed, but that once the livestock and the skilled shepherds had left the hills, it would be very difficult to reinstate them or the landscape which would be reclaimed by nature.

Ian Hall, land manager for Lilburn Estates, pointed out that most farmers on the estate were in their mid-fifties and that it was very hard today to provide a practical living for young people. He cited in the case of a young rural worker in the Cheviots whose wife worked in Berwick and whose three children went to school in both Alnwick and Wooler a lifestyle that was fraught with expense and difficulties.

Charles Scott of the Farming Business Survey Unit asked the National Park to think about what it could do to help hill farmers who would not be able to survive if the current payment for environmental stewardship was ended.

Terry Carroll from the Centre for Rural Economy at Newcastle University pointed out that the last affordable housing build in the National Park was a set of four units in Harbottle in 1980.  He said that current planning policy favours local people and the status quo, whereas if rural communities were to survive and thrive, policy and infrastructure should encourage inward migration of young families.

The issues around tourism and the encouragement of visitors to the remote countryside were hotly debated.  Some said that the uniqueness of the area was its emptiness which should be preserved at all costs, others called for better facilities for visitors such as improved access and services including broadband.

People were in general agreement about targeting visitors to places that could support more numbers especially where it would benefit rural communities, and there was resounding call to help regional urban communities to understand the value and feel ownership of their National Park.  Local resident, John Vardy pointed out that there many people north of the border could easily get to the National Park.  Mark Osborne of Groundwork Northumberland said that there was a big visitor market right on the doorstep in the urban communities of the north east, and that this might avert the worrying trend of children being so alienated from the countryside that only six children out of twenty-five in one class could recognise a sheep.

Trees and water were two topics that also raised strong feelings.   Forestry covers twenty per cent of the National Park. Brendan Callaghan, Regional Director of the Forestry Commission, said his organisation recognised that not all conifer plantations were appealing to visitors and that parts of it were now being harvested and replaced with native woodland habitat. However, it needed to be understood that large scale forests like Wark had a major impact on employment where wood was processed outside the immediate area, so a balance had to be struck between biodiversity, economic well-being and climate change mitigation.

Jane Karthaus of Border Consultants (Forestry), defended the conifer forest saying that it was thanks to this that the red squirrel had sanctuary in the north. She added that trees were the most effective carbon store and water control and an important raw material for all kinds of industries.

Ross Lowry of the Environment Agency expanded on the matter of water in the uplands. He said that the with a 3-5 degree rise in temperatures in the next five years, the effects of climate change would be drastic and tackling this single issue should be part of every plan made for the countryside.  The uplands are critical to the management of water providing storage of clean, usable water for people and agriculture in the hills and the lowland plains, to maintain water sinks to fight wildfires and to control too low or too high flows of rivers. A warming climate could result in big changes such as northern waters being too warm for salmon and the hills being more suitable for arable farming.  Tree planting along rivers could help to keep water cool in summer and help to slow water flow in winter.

Angus Collingwood-Cameron, Director of the Country Land and Business Association said that the discussion highlighted the complexity of issues facing rural life.  He called for support in getting better access for rural communities to both the countryside for tourism and to broadband services for business.

Local resident Nick Bergen backed the call for better broadband and affordable housing, and added that encouraging better public transport was also an important role for the National Park to support the local economy.

The National Park Forum raised a lot of issues which the National Park Authority will use to inform its priority setting for the next year.  Many of these points are being addressed in its Management Plan Action Plan being developed now.

The Authority is keen to continue the discussion and will be opening a discussion page on its website at www.northumberlandnationalpark.org.uk to which anyone will be able contribute their views.

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