Funding cuts leave England’s national parks facing ‘existential crisis’ | Access to green space

England’s national parks are facing a funding crisis that is forcing them to plan to close visitor centres, lay off park rangers, stop maintaining trails and introduce other cuts, in a bid to to balance their budgets, according to the latest figures.

Funding has fallen by 40% in real terms over the past decade, and subsidies are expected to stagnate through 2025 despite rising payrolls and costs. Government funding for national parks has been frozen since last year. Data compiled by National Parks England suggests the country’s 10 park authorities will need to make cuts of £16million over the next three years.

“We are being asked to help tackle climate and natural emergencies. We are expected to welcome some 80 million visitors a year. But we can’t achieve all of these goals if our funding goes down,” said David Butterworth, the current chief executive of National Parks England. National parks were created under legislation passed by the post-war Labor government to protect the country’s most treasured landscapes and provide the war-weary population with inspiring outdoor recreation opportunities.

Other parts of the UK are working to open up more national space. The Scottish Government is consulting on creating at least one new National Park by 2026 and the Welsh Government is planning to create a new National Park in North East Wales.

But in England most if not all parks are facing a crisis. Dartmoor National Park, which manages 368 square miles of rugged moorland in Devon, this week began consulting its 100 staff over 15-20 redundancies and £500,000 in cuts, which could see a center shut down award-winning hospitality. The authority is also considering selling historic land and buildings, including one of the few remaining traditional farmhouses on Dartmoor, to private buyers, who can refuse public access.

“We are in the worst financial situation of the authority since its creation [in 1995]. We are not just planning to cut services – we will have to close services,” said Kevin Bishop, Chief Executive of Dartmoor National Park. “We are heading towards an existential crisis.”

Dartmoor, which receives £3.8million from the government each year, warns in its latest budget that 21 projects, including the park’s biodiversity action plan and its youth ranger outreach programme, could be at risk.

The Northumberland National Park Authority, which is responsible for 200 square miles of northern uplands including Hadrian’s Wall, uses its reserves to cover some of its running costs. Tony Gates, the authority’s chief executive, said it had lost more than half of its funding since 2010 and needed to find £600,000 in savings by 2025. It is exploring all options to bridge revenue shortfalls, including potential reductions in ranger services, track maintenance fees, visitor centers and nature restoration projects.

“All national parks finances are at the cliff edge, but Northumberland is closest to the cliff edge because it receives the least from the government,” he said. “It means we will have to consider reducing frontline services. We may have to stop whole swaths of work.

The Cheviot Hills in Northumberland National Park. Photography: Izel Photography/Alamy

Park staff are already multitasking and working beyond their job descriptions, with many key functions covered by one person. “It’s very demoralizing. People who work for national parks – like me – believe in what we do. We believe Britain’s finest scenery should be preserved and everyone in society should be given the opportunity to have access to the outdoors,” Gates said.

Landacre Bridge and the River Barle on Exmoor.
Landacre Bridge and the River Barle on Exmoor. Photography: James Osmond Photography/Alamy

Exmoor National Park, which manages moorland and wooded valleys on the northern edges of Somerset and Devon, is receiving £1million less in grants than in 2010. It will have to make a further £500,000 in cuts to ‘by 2025. Sarah Bryan, the park’s general manager, said the authority is considering closing up to two of its three visitor centers, making layoffs “throughout the organization” and hand over the management of 1,000km (620 miles) of footpaths to local county councils, which are struggling with their own budget shortfalls.

She said the authority may also have to sell land “that belongs to the nation” and raise user fees for its car parks, which would discourage low-income people.

The Yorkshire Dales National Park will have a budget deficit of £1.3million by 2025, the biggest deficit of any English authority. “Frankly, I am frustrated and appalled. Opportunities to make a difference [to climate change] are being lost. If nature and the climate crisis are not resolved quickly, none of us have a future,” said Butterworth, who is also the Yorkshire Dales chief executive.

A tree on the limestone pavements above the village of Malham in the Yorkshire Dales.
A tree on the limestone pavements above the village of Malham in the Yorkshire Dales. Photograph: George Robertson/Alamy

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: ‘We understand the very difficult financial circumstances currently facing all sectors and the pressures this is placing on our national park authorities. especially. We remain committed to supporting our national park authorities and are working with them to identify additional sources of funding, including through private investment.