Holding on to the edge of wilderness

National Parks at the crossroads: Environmental guardians contend with slow 'suburbanisation'. Stephen Goodwin reports
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Brown-coloured signs might not be a big deal in themselves, as they point the way to the Beatrix Potter Attraction, a mill shop or garden centre but their proliferation since government deregulation is a sign of worrying indifference to critics of the tourist market.

"Yet again, economics has triumphed over the environment," say the Friends of the Lake District. The Friends' secretary, Ian Brodie, thinks parks are "too soft" on the tourist industry - and on developers in general.

Sir Chris Bonington, President of the Council of National Parks, accepts "there is always a risk of National Parks dropping down the priority list." They are certainly suffering from deep budget cuts which limit their ability to fight the impact of quarrying, military training and the gradual "suburbanisation" of the parks.

The Countryside Commission (CC), too, has reduced support for the parks in their fight against intrusive developments. Richard Lloyd, head of the CC's national parks and planning branch, insists everyone is "still friends" but acknowledges the commission's deliberate disengagement from development control.

Farmers and landowners also have a vital interest in the powers and policies of the parks. "The problem our members have is with the term itself," said Alan Woods, environment adviser at the Country Landowners' Association (CLA). "It is assumed by the public that the land in a National Park is nationally owned, that the public have access to all of it and that the public interest is superior to the private interest."

In the run-up to the 1995 Environment Act, the CLA lobbied against fetters on farm diversification, and industry. Small towns and villages in the parks "need to be centres of economic activity rather than simply dormitories", it said. But dispelling the distrust is a struggle for the parks. Perhaps unjustly, they have a reputation as the people who say "No". In the Peak District, for example, 80 per cent of planning applications are approved.

Nor are the National Parks short of a "mission statement". The 1995 Act summed up their purposes: conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage; promoting opportunities for understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of those areas; and fostering the economic and social well-being of local communities ... without significant expenditure.

But it may be that if the parks are to remain special, they will have to go further, and close the door on quarrymen, road builders and the Army unless they limit their activities.

And visitors should be prepared for a degree of "rationing" - mainly on the use of their cars but also on noisy and incongruous sports such as power-boating.