National Parks hit by the financial crisis: ‘It’s never been anywhere near as bad as this in 30 years’

'The green lungs of the nation' have seen their funding fall as much as 40% in real terms over the past decade. James Fisher reports on the struggles of Britain's national parks.

Two national parks are struggling in the face of severe spending cuts, those in charge have warned. In a statement released last week, Sarah Bryan, CEO of Exmoor National Park, said that she has ‘worked in national parks for 30 years and [has] never seen it anywhere near as bad as this’. Echoing those comments, Trevor Beattie, CEO of the South Downs National Park Authority, said that ‘it will be difficult to continue doing the job properly’, when asked by the BBC about past and future funding cuts.

Mr Beattie said that funding for the South Downs had fallen by about 40% in real terms during the past decade and that the authority has had to make £1.1 million of savings this year. Ms Bryan said that Exmoor receives about £1 million less in grant funding than it did in 2010 and will have to make a further £500,000 of savings by 2025. She also warned that the authority may have to sell woodland and increase charges to fill funding gaps.

In response, a Defra spokesperson told the BBC that they were ‘committed to supporting our national park authorities’. In last week’s Autumn Statement, there was no mention of national parks; however, the statement does indicate an increase in spending on ‘Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ of about £400 million for the next year.

The ‘green lungs’ of the nation

‘These are really difficult times for us,’ said Ms Bryan. ‘We manage a beautiful landscape working with farmers and the local community, but we now risk having to close up to two of our three visitor centres, make redundancies “right through the organisation” and no longer being able to manage 1,000km (620 miles) of paths.’

Recommended videos for you

Mr Beattie said that the cuts to the South Downs, as well as nine other parks across England, contrast with the UK’s climate-change and Nature-recovery ambitions. He described national parks as being ‘the green lungs’ of the nation. ‘What an odd thing to happen at the time of COP27 when we’ve just accepted that tackling climate change is a top international priority,’ he added. It was reported that the other national parks facing funding difficulties include Northumberland and the Yorkshire Dales.

In an open letter to Jeremy Hunt, Rose O’Neill, CEO of the Campaign for National Parks, wrote that ‘this balancing act cannot continue much longer’. ‘With rising costs and inflation, even within the current budget settlement made earlier this year, the 10 national park authorities in England will be pushed to the brink, anticipating total cuts of £16 million,’ she said. ‘This will bring many authorities to their knees, forcing them to withdraw frontline services and having a severe and long-lasting impact on national parks, the local communities that rely on them and the UK as a whole.’

‘We remain committed to supporting our national park authorities and are working with them to identify additional sources of funding, particularly through private investment,’ the Defra spokesperson added.