The future of the North Lees Estate (i.e. Stanage) is being reviewed. The BMC is concerned at a lack of transparency in how the future of this iconic place is being decided. BMC Peak Area volunteer Henry Folkard answers some important questions about why the BMC is concerned.
Is Stanage likely to be sold?
The Peak District National Park Authority (PDNPA) has been carrying out a review of all its assets to see whether they need to be retained in-house or whether they could be sold or managed by like-minded organisations. Two big estates, the Eastern Moors and the Roaches have already been leased to other suitable organisations. A tender process for Stanage was about to start in 2011 when new members of the PDNPA’s Audit, Resources and Performance (ARP) committee decided to see if they could retain ownership and responsibility for Stanage.
Earlier this month, following the launch of the BMC’s Stand up for Stanage Campaign, the PDNPA’s CEO Jim Dixon said; “I think it is quite unlikely we would end up selling it. It is more likely that we would end up with a long term lease arrangement.”
It seems we may be back to where we were two years ago.
What has prompted the BMC to launch a petition?
The BMC is concerned with the lack of consultation: we are not trying to make decisions for them but we do want the PDNPA to talk to stakeholders. We want them to hear our representative views before making important decisions over the future of the estate. We are concerned that in a bid firstly to cover costs and then make a surplus, changes could come into place which could impact on access, conservation and the landscape. We fear that any money generated from Stanage would not support its upkeep but be used elsewhere to cover administrative and general costs – which we already meet through taxation.
The BMC works quietly behind the scenes and is well represented locally on various forums like the Stanage Forum and Local Access Forum. Both have sought to meet with the PDNPA before papers are presented to committee so that local views could be reflected but these requests were declined. The BMC therefore, as the representative body for climbers and hill walkers, felt strongly that the PDNPA should listen to those who have a real interest and passion for the area. We have published a Charter to get our fundamental views across, whatever future they decide. This is not the first time there has been a Charter for Stanage as the Friends of the Peak published a similar document in 2012. Together, we are asking that the PDNPA listens to us; since we launched our campaign, over 11,000 people have signed the petition to say they agree with us.
When will the PDNPA proposals over the future of Stanage be discussed?
A report of the financial and management options for Stanage will be presented to the ARP committee on 20 September but the public will only see part of this report. We are concerned that the financial section of the report which will underpin key decisions over the future management of the North Lees Estate will go unseen and unquestioned. The PDNPA has to date, failed to carry out a public consultation, even though Stanage is effectively in public ownership. We are concerned that decisions will be announced before the public have had the chance to influence them. Our regional access officer has three minutes in which to make a statement to the committee which will outline our Charter and principles for the future of the estate.
What has happened since the asset review of the North Lees Estate in 2011?
In the past couple of years we believe there has been little investment in Stanage and regular engagement with stakeholders has stopped. Focus has shifted from the environment and recreation to generating income to offset costs. There is currently no estate management plan, only reference to an unseen business plan which presumably references future management requirements and costings. The ten year management plan developed in consultation with stakeholders expired in 2012 and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) like Stanage require up-to-date management plans to ensure they remain in favourable condition. We would like the PDNPA to share their vision for the future management of the estate.
Would the BMC be opposed to them selling or leasing the land?
The BMC would not be opposed if it was to a like-minded organisation that would safeguard its public ownership, and guarantee that it would be well looked after with frequent stakeholder engagement. We are asking the PDNPA to keep us and the public in the loop now before any final decisions are made.
What specific changes do the BMC fear?
We cannot be sure what the PDNPA will propose but our main concerns are:
the introduction of stringent parking controls which could have a negative impact on traffic flows, conservation measures and accessibility. Introducing parking controls in one area could mean visitors take a short cut across a particularly environmentally sensitive area, as they have in the past. It could lead to lots of yellow lines and signs, spoiling the wild beauty of the place. Charges could be a barrier to visitors to the area with a knock-on effect for the local economy. It could also have a detrimental effect on neighbouring villages as visitor parking and traffic increases, impacting on local residents;
the North Lees camp site was set up to cater for visitors on a budget. Taking it up-market or increasing charges could turn away the very people you are trying to encourage to visit the National Park;
As budget cuts seem inevitable such charges will only escalate, taking away the freedom of access the PDNPA has been so effective in negotiating in the past, and deterring people from visiting the area. We believe other sources of revenue need to be found for instance, in the form of a rural enterprise developed around the North Lees Hall complex as this could help give better long term financial security.
North Lees is on open access land. Why are you concerned about access?
We are not worried about that designation changing, but there could be subtle effects over time, especially for activities not permitted under CROW. It is also possible to apply to restrict access for reasons of public safety or for land management purposes.
How should the PDNPA engage with stakeholders?
There is already an excellent template for good stakeholder involvement on the Eastern Moors under the RSPB / National Trust partnership. Since they took over the lease, access concessions have been improved, a conservation strategy has been put in place, excess tree growth has been removed from Curbar and Froggatt (by BMC volunteers), archaeology has been surveyed, a management plan has been agreed and volunteer input has increased. On Stanage there is nothing at all to show for two years of internal deliberations.
Why is consultation with stakeholders so important?
Stanage is publicly owned: the public have a stake in it. People feel a real sense of ownership they want recognised and those who visit Stanage care about it and want a say in how it should be managed. We want to be able to feed our thoughts into the process before decisions have been made, so that account can be taken of them. Being told what has been decided for you before you have been asked is not consultation.
Why is there a greater need for transparency?
The PDNPA used to be much more open than it is now; issues concerning Stanage were aired at the Stanage Forum and senior managers actively wanted to know our views before they made decisions. More recently however, that seems to have changed and we are being kept in the dark about important decisions affecting the area. We fear that the PDNPA’s silence is a reflection of the fact they may have already made a decision.
When it comes to PDNPA papers going to its committees, select members of the public can still give a statement but only for three minutes and by prior arrangement. Questions to or from the speaker giving the statement are prohibited. The public are then asked to leave whilst substantive discussions take place behind closed doors. There is definitely room for greater transparency and democracy in the way the Authority is run and decisions which affect the public are made.
For example, National Park committees are appointed. Members are not elected onto those committees by the public. They have enormous powers, but no democratic mandate. One could reasonably expect that should mean they consulted more, not less. On the PDNPA committee, representation by anyone actively engaged in recreation is also marginal.
Do you think the PDNPA will take any notice of our charter?
Over 11,000 people have signed it so they should not ignore that. The PDNPA CEO was quoted in the Sheffield Star as saying he would “support much, if not all of the BMC’s Stand up for Stanage Charter”. We would still like to know what the Park can not support.
We suspect the PDNPA have been shocked by our campaign and may argue that we have overstated our case. However, this is an important issue over process and how decisions are being made about our national parks. Thousands of people clearly agree with our Charter and the PDNPA should listen to those voices.
Interview with Henry Folkard, BMC Peak Area access volunteer