Seventy years ago Clement Attlee became Prime Minister. In the aftermath of the six long years of the Second World War the UK needed a new settlement fit for the future that could rebuild the morale and infrastructure of the country. As we all know the welfare state was born and this is now seen as one of the great reforming Governments that transformed people’s lives.
One of the less well known, but equally important aspects of six years of a very British revolution, was the huge strides that were made in opening up access to the countryside and beginning to create a system of protecting the wildlife that calls the British Isles home.
In 1949 a truly radical piece of legislation became law – the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. It set a framework to establish the great National Parks of England and Wales, began the journey towards creating Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and addressed the needs of a network of public rights of way.
Two years later the Peak District became the first National Park and fifty-eight long years later the South Downs became the last of the original list of twelve to join the ranks of great national natural assets.
The journey towards this momentous passage of legislation was a long one. As the towns and cities of the industrial north and London expanded there was a recognition that we needed to protect our most treasured landscapes. Many of these special places were off limits because of private ownership. It was the mass trespass on to Kinder Scout (in Derbyshire) in 1932 that set in train a domino effect which led to the Attlee Government giving the full weight of the law to protecting our rights to enjoy these special places.
Seven decades on and it feels like the National Park movement is under huge strain. Its coffers are increasingly bare, i.e., it’s having to do the same or more with much less resource and staff, and the new Government has a taste for deregulation and a weakening of planning legislation.
The National Parks of England and Wales are our great natural lungs: places where you can go to play or just take a moment to get off the treadmill of life. Millions of us travel to them every year. I grew up spending many a happy day on Dartmoor – its bleak and unforgiving beauty engrained on my memory bank. I live in Bath surrounded by the Cotswold AONB and that wonderful escarpment.
When we think of the welfare state and that safety net for people in the UK we should include the consequences of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act. This is about our well-being and ability to spend time enjoying and being part of a wild landscape. Yes these places have been shaped by human activity and continue to be so but they provide a place to connect with nature and we need them now more than ever.