Quarrying activities in the Yorkshire Dales could be extended. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Quarrying activities in the Yorkshire Dales could be extended. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

England’s national parks are at risk of unwarranted development because of a piecemeal approach to planning, a report says.

The three conservation bodies that commissioned the research called on the Government to protect the areas.

The Campaign for National Parks, National Trust and Campaign to Protect Rural England said short-term economic priorities are overriding long-established protections and allowing inappropriate development in England’s national parks.

The new report is based on research commissioned by the three organisations and conducted by Sheffield Hallam University. The research looked at the national policy to restrict major development in national parks, which has protected the areas since they were created in the 1940s.

The CNP said: “The research found that interpretations of major development vary between the national parks, and decisions to approve planning applications often reflect the Government mood at the time, with policy changes that lean toward economic growth rather than environmental protection.

“This varying approach has led to a number of recent major developments being granted permission that threaten the protected areas’ beauty, along with their cultural and environmental significance.

“The major development test is the central planning protection for the landscape in national parks, and applies to developments such as mines, windfarms and large-scale housing developments. It states that planning applications should be refused for major development unless there are ‘exceptional circumstances’.”

Researchers from the university interviewed national park authority planners across the country and examined the decisions on 70 planning applications for major development in, and in the setting of, national parks.

This included the approval last year of the world’s largest potash mine in the North York Moors. The CNP said: “If the mine goes ahead, this huge development will disfigure the landscape, negatively impact on wildlife and cause an increase in HGV traffic during its construction.

“Some predict it could result in a 13 per cent reduction in visitor numbers and could cause a loss of £35m in direct tourism expenditure per year.

Other threats to national parks and their settings from major development identified by campaigners include an application for oil extraction next to an ancient woodland in the South Downs.

A proposed new nuclear power station near Sellafield will be visible from the western Lake District. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

A proposed new nuclear power station near Sellafield will be visible from the western Lake District. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

The Lake District is currently bidding for Unesco world heritage site status. CNP said a planned nuclear power station and linked electricity pylons would affect the setting of the park, and while it is currently proposed to underground power lines within the park itself, this is still subject to final approval.

There are proposals to significantly widen roads that cut through the South Downs and Peak District and increase quarrying activities in the Yorkshire Dales national park, as well as a large holiday complex on the south-west edge of the park.

Campaigners also said the threat of fracking is looming over the South Downs, Exmoor, North York Moors and Peak District. Last year the Government voted to allow fracking below depths of 1,200m in national parks. The CNP said this will mean that not only will the parks potentially be affected by substantial developments in surrounding areas, but energy companies could also drill beneath them.

Ruth Bradshaw, policy and research manager at the Campaign for National Parks said: “It is essential the Government confirms that protecting our national parks from inappropriate, damaging development remains a national priority.

“Our national parks are special because of the beautiful landscapes, wildlife and cultural heritage they contain and the recreational opportunities they offer. But they are also important to the rural economy and have huge potential to help improve our nation’s health and wellbeing.

“These assets must be protected and enhanced for future generations to enjoy and benefit from.”

The three groups called on the Government to reconfirm its commitment to national parks in the forthcoming 25-year plan for the environment by clearly stating how they will ensure their long-term protection and enhancement.

They added it is also essential that protections for nature are maintained after the UK leaves the European Union.

The campaign groups said national park authorities to develop local plan policies that set out clearly how the protection against major development should be applied in their national park.

Natural England should take a more active role in ensuring that national parks are effectively protected from major development, they said. This should include producing an annual update setting out how the major development test is being implemented and providing guidance or training for national park authorities to address any issues identified.

Emma Marrington, senior rural policy campaigner at the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “National parks should have the highest level of planning protection, but in practice this can be overridden in the interests of short-term economic gain.

“Our research has shown that national planning guidance should be improved so that when developments are considered, public bodies and developers give due regard to the importance of national parks. These are the jewels in the crown of the English landscape.

“We should not allow major development to damage national parks irreparably.”

Ingrid Samuel, historic environment director at the National Trust, said: “Dealing with major development pressures has always been one of the central challenges for our national parks, and we know further challenges lie ahead.

“As the Government considers the UK’s exit from the European Union, it will want to ensure we are competitive. But we think it should also focus on our natural and cultural heritage, which, as well as being much loved by people across the country, is one of our greatest capital assets.

“Our national parks help make us distinctive and globally attractive as a nation. The Government’s new 25-year plan for the environment offers a chance to reinforce planning protections for our finest landscapes, and to ensure wildlife is safeguarded through maintaining protections that currently exist in EU law.”

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