To Protect? Or To Preserve? (Opinion Piece)

by David Murray on 7 September 2011

in Environment, Industries, Landscape, National Parks, Opinion, Organisations, Tourism

There are wild places, described by poets, painted by artists and loved by country walkers which must be protected for future generations to enjoy. I suspect that most readers of Around-England will have no difficulty in agreeing with that statement. I fear, however, that this post may lose me some friends as I consider the question, “But does that mean they must be preserved just as they are?”

There is a majesty to the wide open moors and mountains, not forgetting the rivers. Wordsworth wrote glowingly, “Duddon! as I cast my eyes, I see what was, and is, and will abide; Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide.” Beautiful words! And beautiful landscapes must be protected. Furthermore, wildlife habitats need to be guarded from wanton destruction, especially where there is something rare or unusual, or endangered.

The North of England is well provided with National Parks (four of England’s ten), Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (seven of England’s thirty-four), and many Sites of Special Scientfic Interest. To this list one should add bodies such as English Heritage and The National Trust. All of these in their different ways provide protection for some of the most glorious areas of our land. I’m a great admirer of so much that they do.

My question, however, is about balance and competition. It is about striking a balance between environmental protection and economic sustainability for both present and future populations. It is also a competition of contrasting philosophies and the aspirations they generate, between the desire to protect the countryside from severe change and a wish to prevent almost any change at all. In other words we have to ask, are our beautiful areas to survive comprehensively as human habitats or only as landscape museums which reluctantly tolerate the presence and activity of people?

Wordsworth again conjured up deep emotions when he referred to Kirkstone Pass as, “These fraternal hills where, save the rugged road, we find nor hint of man;” poetic, but not accurate. The landscape even in his day had been substantially shaped by the activity of humans and their sheep for centuries, and we do well to remember this.

My interest in this dilemma dates back to the early 1980s when as a consultant I worked on economic development issues in the northwest and from time to time specifically on tourism. I quickly concluded that the concept of “sustainability” was often being promoted in far too narrow a sense, forgetting the need for the economic sustainability without which in the long term the environmental aspirations will become unattainable.

Cumbria, including the Lake District, was an industrial county for centuries before tourists arrived. Windermere and Coniston were commercial waterways carrying not only woollen and wooden products but also materials extracted from the fells and mountains south to other parts of England and further afield. Ambleside was an industrial village, Stock Ghyll driving many a water wheel. Coniston Old Man was the site of copper mines and slate quarries. Graphite was mined in Borrowdale, firstly for military purposes and then for pencils, and many other rare elements were extracted from the Cumbrian hills.

Could the Mines Royal ever have opened if the present-day environmental protection system had existed then. (Or would the first Queen Elizabeth, aware of the severe economic challenges to her country, have overruled the objectors?) Could the dry stone walls, one of the glories of the northern upland landscape ever have been built, or would they have been viewed as a creeping fungus, blotting the otherwise “pristine” landscape. Even earlier, could Herdwicks and other hardy breeds of sheep ever have been introduced if viewed as non-native species threatening to change for ever the vegetation of the fells?

Today we view the relics of old industry as attractions, and cover them with protective regulation. Yet we block so much 21st century development as inappropriate. Is there not sometimes a degree of hypocrisy in promoting the ruins of industry from the 19th century and earlier as part of an interesting visitor experience in industrial archaeology, and yet objecting to far less dramatic change in the 21st?

Tourism was a relative late-comer to the North of England, but a very welcome one economically as traditional industries faded. Initially it was genteel tourism, the well-to-do wondering at the fearsome mountains. The introduction of popular tourism was resented and resisted by the well-heeled, but it was unstoppable. Down the years it has, of course, changed. The development of more indoor attractions, for example, has made it possible to lengthen the season. It must continue to change so as to keep up with changing patterns in society.

I cannot help wonder, however, whether far-future generations of archaeologists will look at the landscapes of our national parks and hypothesise that they must have been almost evacuated for a couple of centuries because they can’t find much that doesn’t look like a tidied up version of the 19th or earlier?

Having no doubt upset quite a number already I’ll now move on to popular campaigning. On this topic I do know what I’m talking about having been Deputy Chairman, 2000-2005, of the UK chapter of a major international campaigning body, Transparency International. I well recall having to work hard to curb overenthusiasm. A particular type of oil-related payment to foreign governments was often being diverted into the private pockets. Some newspapers then branded the oil companies’ payments as themselves being corrupt. They were not. It was the diversion, the theft, that was criminal. To make my point I recall once, at a meeting organised by the World Bank, deliberately sitting at the table with an American oil company executive rather than with others of the NGO group so as to emphasise that responsible advocacy must be scrupulously honest and fair. Campaigners should not be emulating sensationalist journalism.

What does this have to do with envirnomental protection in National Parks and AONBs? Just this, that campaigning can become excessive. Enthusiasm can take over from good sense, and sometimes even from honesty. High profile campaigns frequently go further than the facts can support. In my 1970s book on business ethics (Ethics in Organizations, Kogan Page, 1997) I used a then current example of an environmental campaign in which pollution figures were grossly distorted. Eventually there was an admission, but never an apology. Seemingly the misrepresentation was considered to be justified by the cause. This is not to claim that deliberate lying happens frequently, but sometimes enthusiastic exaggeration can be almost as bad.

Yes, the natural habitats of rare species need protection but that is not to say that nothing must ever be allowed to change within the area concerned. The question should not be, “Will this development have any adverse impact on the habitat?” It should rather be, “Will it have an adverse impact and if so, to what extent and over what timescale?” Proportionality in judgement must win over absolutism.

Inevitably from time to time one hears the cry, “These developments are just about making private profit,” or “Public interest must win over commercialism.” I could go on at length about the nonsense too often talked about the glorious “virtues” of public organisations versus the alleged “evils” of the private sector but will resist the temptation … except to say that I hope the people who object to private sector profit intend to refuse their pension payments when they come due. Where do they think the money comes from?

I’ll return now to tourism. The industry has changed over the years, and must continue to change. The season in Northern upland areas is short. It has improved but much more needs to be done. What is more, the age-profile of visitors must be broadened. This year, since moving back to live in the county of my birth, I’ve had the opportunity of moving around many of the tourist areas. This is admittedly an unscientific impression, with no detailed statistical analysis, but it seemed very clear to me that even during the main school holiday period there was a preponderance of the over-50s. Now I’m well past that point myself, so I’m not arguing for an over-50s quota system, but much more must be done to bring in the 20s and 30s, and in addition to the traditional attractions of the countryside this inevitably must mean developments in the tourism product.

What is so special about keeping things looking like they did two hundred years ago? Hmm! Well! Sometimes it is difficult even to get permission to reinstate things as they used to be. A few years ago, in another part of the country my wife and I moved into a converted barn. The main part of the building dated back to the mid-1700s. The man who had converted it into a house ten years earlier had a lengthy bureaucratic battle over the rules of the conservation area. He wanted a brick-built chimney on the back of the house to allow for a solid-fuel burner in the large entrance hall. Refused! Why? Out of character with the area! After a considerable amount of argumentation he finally obtained a nineteenth century photograph showing the barn. And what was on the back of the building? A brivk-built chimney. He won his appeal.

Lancaster aerial flight - Honister Slate Mine - Borrowdale - Cumbria

The 1920s Lancaster Aerial Flight, Honister (Photograph courtesy of Honister Slate Mine)

This brings me to the recent proposals for the “Lancaster Aerial Flight” at Honister Slate Mine, an imaginative tourism development that has attracted widespread condemnation, generating considerable heat but little light. The fact so rarely considered is that it follows on from a previous structure built in the 1920s when the area was still accepted as a home of employment-creating industry. (Its rejection today by the National Park planning authority is in my view a serious error of judgement).

I am so glad that the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, now one of the Lake District’s major tourist attractions, was converted from an industrial line to a tourist experience more than sixty years ago. If it had closed and reconstruction of the line from Ravenglass to Dalegarth up Eskdale toward Scafell Pike were proposed today I can well imagine the furore that would result, with arguments about the desecration of the fells.

I am fully aware that this is a complex question. Ever since my involvement in issues affecting the economic prosperity of this region back in the 1980s I have, however, been convinced that the remit of the UK’s national park authorities is skewed in an unwise direction. There should be a much better balance between economic prosperity and environmental conservation.

No, I am not advocating a free-for-all. There are beautiful landscapes and important habitats to be protected. From time to time insensitive development unfortunately is allowed in beautiful areas. Whoever could claim that the view over the Solway Firth from Maryport has been enhanced by the windfarm on the other side of the water? Yes, things do sometimes go wrong , but the answer is not to swing to the opposite extreme. There is danger also in the use of emotive phraseology such as, “The thin end of the wedge,” or “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”, or “Setting a dangerous precedent”.

Striking a sensible balance is not easy (dilemmas never are) but if protection is allowed to go too far and to turn into the preservation of a landscape museum then the viability of the region as a home for future generations will be put at risk.

This article has been long in gestation. At one stage, in an earlier version, it was to have formed part of a submission to the recent inquiry into possible extension of some of the National Parks, a submission I decided hold back. I am strongly committed to the protection of our beautiful places, but am seriously concerned at what I believe to be a lack of balance and an economic naivety that too often characterises policy making.
Be Sociable, Share!

Previous post:

Next post: