Are National Parks in England Protected Against Major Development?

National Parks include some of our most beautiful and inspiring landscapes. Covering nearly 10% of England, they make a huge contribution to the economy – tourism in English National Parks contributes £4bn a year – as well as playing a vital role in protecting and enhancing natural and cultural heritage. These areas have the highest level of planning protection, yet this does not always prevent damaging major development from taking place in, or close to, National Parks.


Stanage Edge, Peak District National Park (photo – Howard Crowe)

The Department of the Natural and Built Environment, Sheffield Hallam University, were asked to undertake this research project, funded by the Campaign for National Parks, the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), and the National Trust, over the summer of 2016. We were asked to investigate the interpretation and application of the so-called ‘major development test’ (the test) in National Parks in England and Wales. My fellow lead researcher, Dr Cate Hammond and I have a long-standing interest in the protection of our National Parks, and we were ably supported throughout the project by one of our postgraduate students, Nikky Wilson.

We were asked to respond to concerns that despite the test being an integral part of the 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), this does not always prevent damaging major development from taking place in or close to our National Parks. Our clients wanted us to investigate the effectiveness of the planning protection given to National Parks in England and Wales in relation to these major schemes.

The full report of our main findings can be read on line at

This is the current wording of the relevant paragraph in the NPPF (the test is slightly different in Wales):

116. Planning permission should be refused for major developments in these designated areas except in exceptional circumstances and where it can be demonstrated they are in the public interest. Consideration of such applications should include an assessment of:

  •  the need for the development, including in terms of any national considerations, and the impact of permitting it, or refusing it, upon the local economy;
  • the cost of, and scope for, developing elsewhere outside the designated area, or meetinthe need for it in some other way; and
  • any detrimental effect on the environment, the landscape and recreational opportunities, and the extent to which that could be moderated.”

The test has been amended several times since it was first introduced in 1949 (then known as the ‘Silkin test’). Perhaps the most significant changes were actually made by William Waldegrave in 1987, when National Park Authorities (NPAs) were first required to consider the impact of approving or refusing a scheme on the ‘local economy’. Our research has shown that reference to the ‘local economy’ is a significant factor in the approval of major development applications.

We evaluated major development policies in the Local Plans of all NPAs in England and Wales. This demonstrated that there was significant variation in both the definition of major development and NPAs’ interpretation of existing policy. The definition of major development perhaps seems a fine legal point, but it can have significant impacts on the implementation of the test. A legal opinion provided by James Maurici of Landmark Chambers in 2014, emphasises that the definition of major development in relation to the test is a matter of planning judgment to be decided by the individual NPA. Importantly, national significance or absolute scale is not mentioned, but the severity of the impact on a National Parks’ special qualities is paramount.

We investigated the implementation of the test by searching NPAs’ planning portals to examine over 70 individual cases, and then a more detailed examination of fifteen selected case studies. We also undertook interviews with senior NPA planning officers and received comments from National Park Societies, National Trust planning advisers and CPRE local groups.

We are extremely grateful to all those NPA planning officers who gave up their time and local group members – often working as volunteers – who provided us with a rich background to many of the individual planning cases. We came to fully appreciate the size and complexity of these cases. Many local group members commented on their admiration of National Park officers dealing with such time consuming schemes. The research also identified many examples of good practice which we hope will be promoted widely amongst all the NPAs.

Our main findings suggest that the existing test is generally well supported by NPAs. It is not the actual wording of the test which causes any significant issues. As one local group member commented to us “the policy would have been sufficient to turn down xxx application, had they wanted to”. However, there is strong support for more guidance on the interpretation of some of the terms in the test, such as ‘public interest’ and ‘exceptional circumstances’.

Although the current wording of the test in the NPPF is weaker than the original Silkin test, the most recent changes do not appear to have had any significant impact on decisions. Local and national decisions continue to reflect central government’s agenda at any particular time, and also the continuing challenge of supporting National Park purposes whilst allowing local economic development. Enabling the sustainable development of local communities whilst ensuring National Parks’ primary purposes to protect and enhance these special landscapes for everyone to enjoy, remains the challenge at the heart of these complex cases.

As a result of our main findings, the CNP, CPRE and the National Trust have published a series of recommendations aimed at both National Park Authorities and the English and Welsh Governments. These include:

  • Government should 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.
  • National Park Authorities should ensure their local plans are clear about how the major development test should be applied in relation to the special qualities of the National Park in order to help reinforce and support local decision-making.
  • The Government should make it clear that the duty to ‘have regard’ to National Park purposes applies to developments in the setting of National Parks. Ministers should also emphasise that this duty applies to all public bodies, including neighbouring planning authorities, the Planning Inspectorate and bodies such as Local Enterprise Partnerships and Combined Authorities. This should be addressed by a Ministerial Statement.
  • The Government should ensure that developers are aware of the additional planning protection afforded to National Parks and encourage them to engage with local planning authorities at an early stage when considering any development in, and just outside, National Parks. This should also be addressed by a Ministerial Statement.
  • Natural England should take a more active role in ensuring that National Parks are effectively protected from major development. This should include producing an annual update setting out how the major development test is being implemented and providing guidance or training for NPAs to address any issues identified. Government should support Natural England to fulfil its statutory responsibilities for designated landscapes.
  • To ensure that the many sensitive and important areas for biodiversity and wildlife in National Parks can be safeguarded, it is essential that protections for nature are maintained after the UK leaves the European Union.

We hope our research has helped our clients’ work to provide the highest levels of protection for these designated landscapes.



Europarc Conference 2016

One of my research interests is the management of protected landscapes, particularly national parks – and I have been lucky to visit and study national parks and other protected areas around the world. I was also a government appointed Member of the Peak District National Park Authority for ten years between 1995 and 2006.

The EUROPARC Federation is the network for Europe’s natural and cultural heritage managers – all those authorities set up to protect and manage these special landscapes. The Federation works to improve the management of protected areas through international cooperation, exchange of ideas and experience, and by influencing policy. As a Member of the Peak District National Park Authority, I have attended many of their annual conferences previously, and it was therefore with great delight that I attended their 2016 conference, although now just as an independent academic.

europarc-conference-2016  europarc-conference-2016-2

The conference was held in the regional nature park, Parc Jura Vaudois, just north of Lausanne in Switzerland. The theme of the conference was “We Are Parks!” This meant a focus on how we engage with different communities in protected areas, and how we can explain the value of such areas to these various stakeholders.

We had a range of fascinating presentations from some high level speakers, including the EU’s Commissioner for the Environment, Karmenu Vella; the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Director-General, Inger Andersen; and Carlos de Oliveira Romao, Project Manager from the European Environment Agency (EEA). All spoke passionately about the need to protect the environment and the increasing challenges facing us. Carlos Romao provided some sobering facts and figures from the EEA on biodiversity decline (particularly linked to intensively farmed land) and their recent State of Nature in the EU 2015 report . Inger Andersen suggested that protected areas have to be the “beacons of hope to spread the message of sustainability“. She concluded that society needed to stop seeing environment and development as polar opposites, and focus on the need to integrate social, economic and environmental improvements in all areas. All these presentations can be viewed in full on the Europarc web site.

Our charming Swiss hosts provided considerable background and context around their own protected areas. All countries have their own approach to creating, governing and managing these areas. Switzerland has a political system founded on a very local level of democracy, with referendums required for many decisions. They also have a complicated set of relationships between the Federal Government, the Cantons, and local communes, which can add to the complexity of governance arrangements.

The first (and still only) national park in Switzerland was founded in 1914 in the Alpine region of Engadin (shown in red below) under its own specific legislation. But the Federal Parliament only approved the legal basis for creating new parks in Switzerland in 2007 when the Nature and Cultural Heritage Protection Act came into force. Unlike our own national parks, the Swiss National Park is a `wilderness area` and a state institution; governed and owned by the Federal National Park Commission (FNPC). Regulations are strict – camping is not allowed and there is very limited overnight accommodation in the national park. Dogs – even on leads – are also forbidden (imagine this in the UK!).


The 2007 NCHP Act allowed for the creation of new types of parks. The Parc Jura Vaudois is one of Switzerland’s 14 regional Nature Parks (and is in the far west of the map above – to the north of Lake Geneva). In many ways, these `lived-in landscapes` are more like the UK national parks, as every park has a significant population living in dispersed settlements, and these cultural landscapes have been created by centuries of human influence. Local heritage is considered as important as nature and landscape. Our base, in the Vallee du Joux, was described as the cradle of Swiss watch making. Outdoor recreation and tourism are essential components in the local economy and for the management of these areas.

Swiss Nature Parks can only be designated following a local referendum. Whilst this clearly establishes a sense of ownership within local communities, there also seemed to be challenges around the local expectations of economic growth through tourism, which the park authorities sometimes found difficult to balance with conservation objectives. So – very many similar issues to those faced in UK national parks, and it was fascinating to learn from the different experiences and practice elsewhere in Europe.

As well as formal presentations, we also attended various workshops. I particularly enjoyed a workshop led by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) on their proposals for a new global standard for protected area management – the Green List . In a local school room, we heard about the proposed criteria that could benchmark good governance, sound design and planning, and successful conservation outcomes, and we were given the opportunity to discuss the aims and process involved.


The standard has already been piloted in France and China, and most participants felt it could be a valuable tool in encouraging protected area authorities to measure and improve their management and performance.


My second workshop focused on the role of protected areas in enhancing people’s health and well-being. We shared ideas and good practice from around Europe, with particularly informative presentations from Scottish Natural Heritage and the Finnish parks and wildlife agency (part of their state forestry service – Metsähallitus). An inspirational project from Denmark, was described by Susanne Rosenild, a forest ranger employed by a local health service, to encourage various groups to explore and connect with nature. This project really emphasised the importance of health professionals and countryside professionals working closely together. We plan to set up a Europarc working group focusing on health, and a summary report has already been produced. I plan to follow up several personal invitations to visit case studies in Denmark, Finland and Norway to discuss the monitoring and evaluation of similar projects and share results from the UK.

As well as the workshops, we had the opportunity to explore the natural and cultural heritage of the area ourselves. We were taken on some interesting birding trips along the main Lac de Joux. This visit also explored some of the challenges experienced by conservationists in a country where farmers are so concerned about neatness and tidiness, as a sign of good stewardship. We were also accompanied on a very impressive visit to a local watch factory where the technical brilliance, craftsmanship and local pride in Swiss watch making was at its highest.

swiss-farmland   swiss-watch  swiss-watchmaker

At the end of the conference, there is always a gala dinner, with lot of thanks and announcements about the next Europarc conference in the Montanhas Mágicas, Portugal. Awards and medals for various projects and officers are presented, and I was particularly proud to see Bryony Thompson from the Peak District’s Eastern Moors Partnership  win an Alfred Toepfer travel scholarship to visit various parks around Europe to investigate how they provide an improved visitor experience and the links this might have to pro-environmental behaviour. Bryony confidently summarised her research for the whole conference and I’m looking forward to hearing about her results.


Overall, this event was informative and inspiring and it demonstrated how much we can learn from each other. Much of the organisation of the conference had been done by officers from the Parc Jura Vaudois on top of their usual work – and they did a brilliant job – friendly and efficient. Local people also welcomed us enthusiastically – from the street procession and night market (with fire juggling!), to the local bus drivers who ferried us about every day, and the ordinary passers-by who put up with us asking (in very bad French) directions to all the conference venues.

swiss-procession  europarc-fete

europarc-fire-juggling  europarc-thankyou

The very few UK participants attending felt we had to constantly apologise to our European friends over `Brexit`. Many of those friends shared some of our reservations about EU policy, particularly around the Common Agricultural Policy and the EU’s internal bureaucracy, but they were mystified about our decision to leave. However – as the exuberant Norwegians sharing my hotel  kept reminding me – we are not leaving Europe (that’s geographically impossible) – just the EU. It’s possibly even more important that we maintain our links through organisations like Europarc during the uncertain times ahead.




Sheffield – The Outdoor City

I hope this article is seen as a celebration of the new initiative to promote Sheffield as the UK’s Outdoor City – which I wholeheartedly support. But also sharing some fears about the future management of our public realm, and asking the question whether we should be guided by our principles or by an increasing pragmatism in the current political circumstances.

I was privileged to attend the launch of Sheffield: The Outdoor City at a meeting of the Sheffield International Economic Commission on 16 October. This is a new initiative led by Sheffield City Council, based on findings from a research study, the Outdoor Economy Report , carried out by the Outdoor Recreation Research Group here at SHU.

Outdoor Economy report

Our Outdoor Economy Report revealed that the city has the highest household spend on outdoor equipment in the country, high participation rates and more than 200 outdoor businesses. The outdoor-related Gross Value Added (a measure of the value of goods and services produced in the economy) in Sheffield is £53.12m, generating an estimated employment of 1597 FTE jobs in the sector.

The report also highlights the major outdoor brands in the city, including Go Outdoors, Jagged Globe, the Foundry climbing wall, amongst many others, as well as major events such as the recent Tour de France, the Sheffield Adventure Film Festival, and the European Outdoor Summit.

Residents of Sheffield already knew all of this of course. About a year ago, a  BBC Countryfile poll concluded that Sheffield is indeed the best city in the UK for countryside lovers. Sheffield received over 70% of the readers’ vote, and the BBC Countryfile magazine is already proclaiming Sheffield “Outdoors City of the Year”. Over 5600 people voted for Sheffield and many left their personal thoughts on why their local green spaces, parks, woodlands, the hills and valleys, mean so much to them.

So what can Sheffield gain by promoting itself as the Outdoor City? A panel of expert speakers all shared their thoughts at the launch. I was particularly impressed by Cllr Leigh Bramhall’s contribution – he emphasised the economic benefits to the city, but also the wider health and social benefits which can come from enhancing access to well managed green spaces. Cllr Bramhall was also careful to reinforce the notion of sustainable access. We need to encourage more people to enjoy the natural environment more often, but also to protect and enhance our special places.

The panel members also explored how this new piece of `branding` is more than just a bit of creative `marketing speak`. It actually feels true and grounded in a real sense of Sheffield – the place and its people. Sheffield is the important manufacturing city it is today because of its `ten thousand years of human history` founded on its seven hills and valleys, and the water, the woodland and the coal obtained from that landscape. These features have literally fuelled the development of the city we see today. Sheffielders have also had to fight for access to that landscape, and continue to campaign to ensure its protection. Now, as we face future challenges – both industrial and environmental – we can combine that pride in our natural heritage with our hopes for a greener, more sustainable economy based on advanced technology and innovation.

But there remain challenges if this new initiative is to go beyond just raising the city’s profile, to position Sheffield as a forward thinking and innovative green city building on its industrial and environmental heritage.

Widening participation in outdoor activity remains as critical and as problematic as ever. We know from surveys undertaken by Natural England, particularly their Monitoring Engagement with the Natural Environment surveys , that there remain barriers to everyone enjoying these same opportunities.

MENE Survey, NE

The 2013-14 Annual Report of the MENE survey confirmed that certain demographic and social factors affect the frequency of outdoors visits –

  • People less likely to visit are those aged 65 and over, those with a long-term illness or disability, those in the lower DE social grades, and those of Black & Minority Ethnic (BAME) origin.
  • Population groups that visit the outdoors less overall, tend to take visits to towns and cities when they do visit.
  • Those in the AB social grades are more likely to agree strongly that their local green spaces are within easy walking distance, of good quality and easy to access, than those in the DE social grades.

This underlines the importance of removing barriers to access to the outdoors across all social boundaries, particularly if we wish everyone to benefit from the health and well-being advantages engagement with the natural environment brings. But it also emphasises that green spaces within urban areas (and not just access to the Peak District) are even more important to those groups who visit infrequently.

A second area which I feel we rather glossed over in our celebration of the Outdoor City on 16 October, is the issue of how our green spaces, parks and woodlands – even our national parks – are to be effectively managed in order that more of us can enjoy them more often. Interestingly, at least two of the panel experts at the City Hall suggested that the great thing about the outdoors was that it was `free`. I could see a few parks and woodlands managers in the audience raising an eyebrow at that comment.

Outdoor recreation is a bit like the National Health Service in this respect. It’s free at the point of use (if you ignore the travel costs, the gear, the food, etc.) – but it is clearly not free to effectively protect and manage any of these resources. We need highly skilled staff and we need ongoing maintenance budgets to ensure that our green spaces are kept safe, beautiful, rich in wildlife and accessible to all. In the past, these essential services have been seen as the `public realm` – managed either by local or national park authorities, or by non-governmental organisations such as the wildlife trusts and the National Trust. But what happens in an `age of austerity`, under a central government who are clearly not committed to the `public realm`, either philosophically or in practice?

We know some of the answers already – the Heritage Lottery Fund has brought much of the evidence together in a recent 2014 publication The State of UK Public Parks. In that report, the benefits of our green spaces are clearly and carefully laid out: local green spaces are central to family life in our cities and towns; they support health and happiness; they improve social cohesion; they promote local economic development; and they deliver a whole range of essential environmental services such as air quality improvements, climate and flood regulation, and enhanced biodiversity. The report also states that people value these assets. Yet there are threats which these services face right across the UK. This HLF infographic  from that report summarises both their importance and some of those threats – budgets across all local authorities are being slashed in response to cutbacks from central government. Skilled staff are lost and not replaced, and increasing pressure placed on remaining staff to seek sponsorship and commercial opportunities across their services. Essential maintenance is cut back, as councils prioritise spending in services such as social care and education.

HLF image 2                            stanage-sticker-300

I have reflected in previous articles on this blog about the need for creative thinking on this subject. Both Sheffield City Council and the Peak District National Park Authority are seeking ever more imaginative ways of raising money from private sources. The Peak District National Park Authority has launched a `Sticker for Stanage`, which allows members of the public to support the management of that iconic estate (as well as some free car parking and camping!) through the purchase of a car sticker.

I believe Sheffield City Council has taken a bold and innovative step to try to plan the best way forward for the future. They have joined a project, along with Manchester City Council and the National Trust, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to explore alternative models for funding public parks and green spaces in the 21st century. Working with the think tank `Nesta`, this project will consider the wider benefits and ecosystem services which local green spaces can provide to our society, and look at different models for funding these services, such as endowment funds, charitable trusts, `Friends` groups, and public donations. A Nesta report on Re-thinking Parks earlier this year reflected on some alternative models for funding these services. We are still waiting to hear about some of the findings from workshops held earlier in the year to explore these issues.

So how do we – the public – wish to be involved in this process? We have some recent experience in Sheffield of how a public/private sector partnership might work in managing some of our finest green features – our street trees – and that has had a rocky beginning (to say the least). I can see how some of the larger charities such as the National Trust might be interested in our major parks, such as Endcliffe Park and Graves Park – but will they be able (or willing) to manage the local rec’ at the end of your street?

I also have a vague sense of foreboding around the increasingly limited options for the future management of the public realm. I understand that in a democracy, we are now stuck with the current government’s views – at least for the next few years. And I attach no blame whatsoever to our City Council – I am sure they would wish to retain these services within a properly funded public sector. I also share the wishes of those people who care for our parks and woodlands to manage them to the best of their ability with whatever funds they can find. But do I really want my public community spaces sponsored by commercial businesses or one step removed from local accountability? I am not so sure.

I find myself utterly torn between two possibly conflicting positions: adhering to the principle of ensuring our public green spaces are effectively managed and protected by people who have both the right skills and are electorally accountable; and the pragmatism of supporting any mechanism to ensure these places remain properly funded so they can be both protected and enjoyed by more people, more often.

The City Council is consulting us now on a new strategy to enhance our outdoor spaces, possibly through the creation of several new recreation hubs around the city. It is essential that all of us who care about the future of our green spaces in Sheffield make our views heard through this process. Let the City Council know what you value about these places and how you want to see them protected.

The consultation will last until 29 November – so make your views count. As well as using the Citizen Space web site, you can also email your consultation response to or post it to: The Outdoor City Consultation, Creative Sheffield, 11 Broad Street West, Sheffield, S1 2BQ.

SCC consultation rec strategy

These are challenging times for the protection and management of our most valued public spaces – but we also need to get out there and enjoy them. The City Council’s new web site has plenty of ideas for places you can walk, run, climb and ride – – just get out there and have fun!

Sheffield The Outdoor City



On 28 April, the Department of the Natural and Built Environment hosted an excellent CPD event organised by one of our accrediting professional bodies, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (the Tyne and Humber regional branch). About forty practitioners, staff and students, gathered to hear about an innovative and exciting project in Sheffield to improve flood defence protection in the Lower Don Valley. The really interesting and exciting element within this project was the award winning partnership led by Sheffield City Council to fund and implement the scheme. Sheffield Chamber of Commerce worked with the City Council to enable the involvement and co-funding of the scheme by private businesses in the Lower Don Valley through the mechanism of a Business Improvement District. Work has also been undertaken by a local social enterprise, the River Stewardship Company , to involve volunteers and engage with local communities and riparian owners in the valley.

We heard from the three main partners in the scheme. Steve Birch, Principal Development Officer at Sheffield City Council, described the main aims of the project and the way the partnership developed. The following information is also provided on their excellent web site. Working closely with the Environment Agency, the main aim of the project was to develop a flood defence scheme for the Lower Don Valley. The valley is a critical economic area for Sheffield, second only to the city centre, but was devastated during the floods in 2007.

Images from the 2007 Sheffield floods

Sheffield floods 2007                      Sheffield floods 2007-a

The proposed scheme will involve improved defences at over 50 works locations along an 8km stretch of the River Don between the Wicker and the Blackburn Brook at the M1. The aim is to protect over 250 businesses and thousands of jobs, as well as ensuring that the valley remains an attractive place for new investment and a great place to do business.

In particular, improved flood protection should help businesses in the area secure flood risk insurance, and potentially at more competitive rates. The scheme has been modelled on the basis that it needs to protect against a one in every hundred years flood, as well as taking into account the increased risk of flooding due to climate change over the next twenty-five years.

LDV flood defence map  1 in 100 year flood likelihood in the Lower Don Valley

The project budget of £19.04m is now fully secured, with over 90% of costs coming from Defra and the Environment Agency. However, according to Steve Birch, this money would not have been unlocked if it hadn’t been for a significant contribution of £1.4 million from the private businesses most affected by flooding. This was made possible thought the development of a Business Improvement District (BID).

Business Improvement Districts are not for profit arrangements whereby businesses agree to fund specific activities in a clearly defined area to strengthen their success and sustainability. In December 2013, affected businesses in the Lower Don Valley voted in a ballot with a majority in favour of the BID proposal (with a turnout of 35% and a majority of 82% on the count of votes received, and a majority of 95% on the count of rateable value of those parties that voted). The BID term is a period of 5 years between 1st July 2014 and 30th June 2019.

Richard Wright, Chief Executive of Sheffield Chamber Commerce, has clearly been a champion for the BID approach from the beginning. He described how the main financial benefits of the scheme to businesses in the valley had to be underlined, and promises of an open and honest consultation with the private sector emphasised. Added value to the private businesses will come through the price and availability of insurance, cost competitiveness, and the security of avoiding potential recovery costs after future flooding events. Richard emphasised that a strong business case was the main motivation for these businesses, but open communication and a good steering group, with leadership, commitment and drive, were all important. Future monitoring to demonstrate that the scheme has delivered on the promised benefits will also be crucial.

Helen Batt from the River Stewardship Company then explained how this social enterprise, with the help of local volunteers and community groups, had also been involved in the scheme. The River Stewardship Company is a limited company with seven of the main environmental groups in Sheffield represented on its Board. Its main role is “little and often river maintenance” paid for by investment from the local riparian owners, and supported by engaged community involvement wherever possible. Their main work has included tree management, invasive weed treatment, debris and litter removal from the river channel, habitat creation and community engagement – often through the involvement of voluntary `river stewards`.

RSC volunteers   A group of volunteer river stewards working for the RSC

This project is clearly going to deliver real, tangible benefits, particularly for people living and working in the Lower Don Valley in Sheffield. The involvement of several hundreds of private businesses to help fund the project is a truly innovative approach.

The discussion following the speakers also proved interesting. Members of the audience quizzed the panel about baseline monitoring of the economic benefits, as well dealing with environmental impacts. There was clearly great interest in extending such an approach to other rivers in Sheffield – although the difficulties of co-ordinating a BID approach in areas with a greater range of both business and residential properties was emphasised.

There was some feeling that the project was quite narrowly defined. This was an opportunity to focus on multiple benefits – not just flood defence, but also access, amenity and biodiversity – for the wider range of public services those additional objectives can achieve. Whilst we all recognised that the private sector interests were likely to focus on the financial benefits to their companies primarily, it was noted that over 90% of the funds for the project came from the public purse. This could have been an exemplar of green infrastructure development leading to enhanced ecosystem services across a wide range of public benefits. There was a suggestion that the project steering group had been very much guided by the Environment Agency in terms of its own primary focus on flood defence. Perhaps the Environment Agency might see this is as something of a missed opportunity, given central government’s professed support for the green infrastructure approach within the National Planning Policy Framework?

Overall though – an excellent event, showcasing a really innovative project. Our thanks to CIWEM for organising the event at SHU, and to all three speakers. We learnt a great deal, and we look forward to supporting future events.

What Future for Sheffield’s Parks and Open Spaces?

The end of another year – and some things to celebrate and maybe some things to be concerned about.

Celebrations first…. Just as we all expected, a  BBC Countryfile poll concluded at the end of December 2014 that Sheffield is indeed the best city in the UK for countryside lovers. Sheffield received over 70% of the vote, and Countryfile is now proclaiming Sheffield “Outdoors City of the Year”.

Not in the least surprising to those of us who live and work in Sheffield of course. Perhaps the most heart-warming thing about the poll is the comments from local people expressing their love of the city, and its parks, woodlands and open spaces. Over 5600 people voted for Sheffield and many left their own personal thoughts on why their local green spaces mean so much to them. Equally important was the ease of access right from the city centre, up our beautiful river valleys and out to the woodland and moors beyond – a third of the city lies within the Peak District National Park.

  Ecclesall Woods  Ecclesall Woods

A recent study by Sheffield Hallam University (commissioned by Sheffield City Council) reinforced the importance of this natural heritage for the city. Because of its special topography (Sheffield is built on seven hills), its parks and woodland heritage, and its proximity to the Peak District, outdoor recreation opportunities are far greater and resulting participation is much higher in the city than in the rest of the UK. It has a long and proud history of walking and climbing in particular. The SHU study also emphasised the importance of the outdoors to the city’s economy – with consumer spending estimated to be around £93 million and estimated employment generated by this outdoor economy nearly 1600 FTEs.

We moved to Sheffield in 1981, and, as well as the sheer friendliness of the place, it was the access to beautiful parks, woodlands and countryside, which persuaded us to stay. There is also a very strong sense of `place` in Sheffield. It’s partly to do with its industrial heritage and its importance in the steel and cutlery making industries – still rightly celebrated today. But it’s also to do with the clear connection between its landscape and its history. Sheffield wouldn’t be Sheffield without those seven hills – and its river valleys and woodland. My erstwhile colleague, Professor Mel Jones, has referred to “ten thousand years of human history” to explain the links between our landscape and the development of the city. The rivers produced the water power which drove the beginnings of the industrial revolution, and the woodland produced timber and charcoal to fuel the mills. The surrounding hills produced more water – and also the millstone grit to produce grindstones. The rest – as they say – is history.

And local people really value these links with their natural heritage – not just now, but over many generations. Norfolk Park, in the city centre, is recognised as one of the first free public parks in the UK. The laying out of the Park began in 1841, and it was opened in 1848. Queen Victoria visited the park in her Diamond Jubilee year in 1897, when she heard 50,000 local schoolchildren sing in her honour. The Duke of Norfolk gifted the park to the City of Sheffield in 1910.

 Norfolk Park poster  Poster for the Sheffield Fayre in Norfolk Park

It was also in Sheffield and Manchester that local campaigns for access to the hills began in the early 20th century. These culminated in perhaps the most famous of the `Mass Trespasses` in 1932, when ramblers walked across the then private estates of the Duke of Devonshire to protest about the lack of public access to their local countryside. Climbers tell me that the gritstone edges above Sheffield are also the birthplace of climbing (“God’s own rock”). The Peak District was designated as the first national park in the UK in 1951, largely because of local people campaigning to both protect and enjoy their local countryside.

Glimpses of Sheffield 

Glimpses of the city centre from the hills near Ringinglow.

But are there concerns ahead?? It would seem so. We are facing one of the greatest assaults on the public realm since many of these nationally important places and services were first created. Our Government is withdrawing huge amounts of financial support , in the name of `austerity`, from the organisations responsible for their upkeep. Support which is essential to ensure these public services and public places are cared for in perpetuity and enjoyed by all. And we seem to be sleep walking alongside this assault, too easily convinced that an apparently civilised society cannot really afford to maintain and promote such services.

Sheffield City Council has had to make savings over the last four years of £238m, due to Government cuts. In 2015/16 it has been announced that they are required to reduce their budget by a further £60m. It must be a very bad time to be a local councillor. I attach no blame whatsoever to the City Council here – they are in an impossible position. What decisions would you make? Cut family support, old peoples’ services, children’s social care, or maybe schools or public libraries? Or look more closely (again) at the Parks, Woodlands and Countryside Service?

The infographic below provides a glimpse of the City Council’s revenue budget in 2014/15. Of the £36m spent on Leisure and Culture, I believe around £7m is spent on the Parks, Woodlands and Countryside Service (this in itself is a significant reduction from around £9m several years ago).

Sheffield budget

So what is to be done?

I believe the City Council has taken a bold and innovative step to try to plan the best way forward for the future. They have joined a project, along with Manchester City Council and the National Trust, and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, to explore alternative models for funding public parks and green spaces in the 21st century. Working with the think tank `Nesta`, this project will consider the wider benefits and ecosystem services which local green spaces can provide to our society, and look at different models for funding these services, such as endowment funds, charitable trusts, `Friends` groups, and public donations.

Many of the different groups and organisations with an interest in Sheffield’s green spaces, along with officers from the City Council, met before Christmas to discuss some of these issues, in two workshops organised through the project. We discussed the range of public benefits which parks and green spaces provide, and how these could be used to create greater support for the management of these areas. And we were all passionately committed to protecting what Sheffield already has and to promoting these areas even more effectively for all Sheffield residents. But, throughout those workshops, I felt a great sense of foreboding.

There is no further case to be made for the protection of local green spaces – because the evidence is already overwhelming. Ironically, the Heritage Lottery Fund itself has brought much of that evidence together in a recent 2014 publication The State of UK Public Parks. In that report, the benefits are clearly and carefully laid out: local green spaces are central to family life in our cities and towns; they support health and happiness; they improve social cohesion; they promote local economic development; and they deliver a whole range of essential environmental services such as air quality improvements, climate and flood regulation, and enhanced biodiversity. The report also states that people value these assets, and yet there are threats which these services face right across the UK. This HLF infographic summarises both their importance and some of those threats:

HLF image 2

So Sheffield is certainly not alone in the challenges ahead. A Nesta report on Re-thinking Parks earlier this year  reflected on some alternative models for funding these services. I imagine we will be exploring all of them in the new year.

Many of these ideas in this report should be explored – but will they be able to replace the significant public funding that these areas have come to rely upon? Increasing community engagement through `Friends` groups is hugely important, and we have successful examples in Sheffield (the Botanical Gardens are a good case study). But I am not sure they can work at all scales or completely replace the skills and long term capability of an effectively funded public service.

 Sheffield botanical gardens  Sheffield Botanical Gardens

Endowment funds and charitable trusts sound promising. There are good examples in the United States in particular, and in the UK, the parks and green spaces of Milton Keynes are managed using this model. The Milton Keynes Parks Trust, was established by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation to own and manage, in perpetuity, the strategic open space in the new town. It took a 999 year lease of 4,500 acres and at the same time was given an endowment of around £20m. The endowment was mainly in the form of commercial property in Milton Keynes and the rental income is used to fund the Trust. The Trust’s green estate now comprises around 5,000 acres of parks, meadows, river valleys, woodlands, lakes and the landscaped corridors which run along the main grid roads– about 25 percent of the new city area. The Parks Trust now runs on a revenue budget of around £4m per year.

I am certain we will be looking at this model closely – but a £20m endowment? There were particular circumstances in Milton Keynes, and it is again difficult to see how this can be achieved in Sheffield.

Increased funding from public giving or corporate donations? Many of our earliest parks and green spaces were originally created through this mechanism, whether it was through local entrepreneurs such as J.G. Graves or local landowners such as the Duke of Norfolk. But do the same wealthy individuals or corporations with the same degree of local connections still exist today? There are many environmental charities in South Yorkshire who compete for such funds – how successful have they been?

There is a danger in such pessimism of course. We could be judged as unimaginative or set in a model of funding created in better times. So I really do hope that the HLF- Nesta project reaches some helpful conclusions, and I look forward to working with the project organisers.

But let us not lose sight of the public values at stake. The HLF’s The State of UK Public Parks report sets out five aims for the future. These include developing new funding models; establishing new partnerships; getting local communities more involved; and collecting and sharing data. But the HLF also calls for renewed local authority commitment to ensure that everyone has access to and can enjoy well managed and high quality green spaces close to where they live and work.

Without this commitment, there is a danger that our precious green spaces will become neglected and under-used. The HLF refers to a “spiral of decline”. We could be in danger of losing the immense social and environmental value of our local natural heritage.

Sheffield City Council is, I believe, committed to doing all it can to prevent this from happening. But they need decent and fair funding from central government to support their initiatives. And the City Council also needs support from its residents and local organisations to demonstrate they value these areas as well. The City Council has asked local people to respond to the latest announcements about future budget cuts (via its web site or email: There will also be a city wide consultation exercise early in the New Year.

Over 5600 of us voted in the BBC Countryfile poll to share our love of Sheffield’s green spaces – to explain why the city makes us proud. We need to make our views known even more widely as well.

Future Build 2014

I attended the Future Build 2014 conference at Sheffield City Hall on 5-6 November. This was a fascinating event, with some great speakers and an excellent exhibition of the work of commercial organisations, universities, government agencies and community groups focusing on the sustainability of housing, commercial property and local communities. The presentations from the two days are now available – Future Build Schedule.

SHU’s Department of the Natural and Built Environment had a stand promoting our postgraduate courses, research work and business services, alongside our Centre for Regional, Economic and Social Research, and the Materials and Engineering Research Institute. There seemed to be a lot of interest in our courses and research projects – we were particularly pleased to be able to promote our new MBA specifically focused at the construction industry. It was also a great opportunity to hear some inspirational speakers. The conference was opened by Wayne Hemingway, who used his own experience starting up in design and fashion to emphasise the need for young people to be able to develop new enterprises, often in the creative industries, using almost `subversive` and unregulated opportunities.  He highlighted the examples of Hackney in London, and the area under the High Line in New York – where early start-ups of independent cafes and small shops have created thriving,  vibrant communities in previously derelict or run-down areas.

High Line, New York      The High Line, New York

He went on to suggest that being `sustainable` was not just about the technical solutions to energy and waste issues (very  much on show in the Future Build exhibition), but also enhancing the social and community aspects of sustainability. Providing communities with the opportunities and the spaces to create, to change and to develop. Much of what Wayne Hemingway discussed chimed very well with a government review of the skills needed to create sustainable communities undertaken in 2003 (chaired by Sir John Egan, published in 2004). The Egan Review concluded by defining eight features which needed to be in place to deliver truly sustainable communities – and these have since been conceptualised as the Egan Wheel…. Egan Wheel

Again – the emphasis here is not just on technological solutions to some of the major environmental challenges, but in creating empowered communities with shared spaces and green places in which people can live, work and play. It’s a good model. I have always felt that `sustainable development` is a nebulous phrase at best – but even a child could have a go at drawing a `sustainable community`. If you can draw it – you can visualise it – and the vision becomes achievable. There were some good examples of local communities near Sheffield aiming to achieve their own sustainability successes at Future Build. ADVyCE – the Amber and Derwent Valley Community Energy project is a social enterprise launched by Transition Belper, working on the largest undeveloped hydro opportunity on the River Derwent. There were many other community schemes at the Future Build event demonstrating what can be achieved by people working in their own areas. It is all too common to hear people express concerns about climate change and environmental loss, but to say they feel they can do nothing to change things – the `value-action gap`. One of the best speakers at the event was a fire fighter from the Dublin Fire Brigade – Neil McCabe. For the past seven years, Neil has written and implemented his own `Green Plan`. He began through concerns for both low morale at his fire station in Kilbarrack, and a personal desire to `do something` for the environment. His first action was to place a cardboard box on the station counter to collect old batteries to recycle. From these small beginnings he has gone on to create a genuine model of sustainable management of energy usage, water and waste, biodiversity and community involvement. His Green Plan has been adopted by Dublin City Council, and rolled out to other fire stations and public services across the city, and has saved millions of euros through energy reduction. He now finds himself feted at EU meetings in Brussels and elsewhere – all richly deserved. Here was a truly inspirational example of one individual who has made a real difference to sustainability in his own community and beyond. Watch his presentation if you can.

Neil McCabe Kilbarrack green-plan