Stephen Goodwin asks whether the national parks, 50 this year, have achieved their founders' vision

Late afternoon on the summit of Helvellyn. We've just climbed V Corner, a snow-and- ice route on the mountain's craggy north-east face overlooking a frozen Red Tarn. It's modest stuff by today's standards, but a pleasurable Boxing Day workout.

Late afternoon on the summit of Helvellyn. We've just climbed V Corner, a snow-and- ice route on the mountain's craggy north-east face overlooking a frozen Red Tarn. It's modest stuff by today's standards, but a pleasurable Boxing Day workout.

Climbers and walkers congregate by the stone windbreak. Actually, there's not a breath of wind but it's freezing hard and the shelter offers a bench in the low sun. There is a bond here. Erstwhile strangers chat about their different routes and marvel together at Helvellyn's panorama of the Lake District in winter.

As the sun dips towards the Irish Sea - the Sellafield nuclear plant mercifully out of view - it silhouettes the western fells and turns distant Morecambe Bay to silver. The colour is behind us, to the east, as the elongated whale-back of High Street flushes from a linen white to pink. The snow has not reached the valleys, where frost gilds the withered bracken.

On such a day one needs no reminder that the Lake District is a special place - special not just in its own right as a harmonious blend of wild mountain heights and traditionally farmed valleys, but special as a place of spiritual refreshment in a frantic world. This year the Lake District National Park celebrates its 50th anniversary, as do three other parks: Snowdonia, the Peak District and Dartmoor. They were an important part of the post-war Labour government's reforms and, though perennially underfunded, have weathered the years relatively free of political interference.

Yet, had the parks fully met the socialist vision of their founders, people like the architect and planner John Dower and the Trevelyans, they might not have survived unscathed. Much of the impetus for them came from the campaign for greater public access to mountains and moor that culminated in the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932.

The parks were to be areas where landscape beauty was maintained and opportunities for public open-air enjoyment amply provided. The founders' emphasis was on a "national benefit" with the parks as a kind of complementary medicine to the newly formed National Health Service. Mill workers from Rochdale and Sheffield foundry workers were envisaged escaping urban grime and heading for the hills at weekends. Wordsworth, in 1810, had mooted the idea of the Lake District as "a sort of national property", but he wanted it restricted to "persons of pure taste". That was not the vision of the 1930s.

How much of that vision has been fulfilled? Society has changed hugely over the past half century, and it would have been fruitless to look for a mill worker on Helvellyn last Boxing Day. So can the Lake District National Park justify the millions it gets from the taxpayer each year? Up to a point.

Paul Tiplady, the park's senior official, rightly points to success in safeguarding a much-loved landscape; that synthesis of mountain, slatey villages and hill farms. Were it not for park status, the Lake District today would have electricity pylons marching up the valleys, tranquil Longsleddale would be submerged under a reservoir, and Windermere would be ringed by waterside apartments and amusement arcades.

But Tiplady is concerned that the parks - and the Lakes in particular - are not really fulfilling that other objective of enabling poorer urban dwellers to play and unwind in fine countryside. Coach parties reach Bowness, a place of pleasure- boat piers and the World of Beatrix Potter, but the central Lake District is the preserve of white middle-classes, affluent enough to rent holiday cottages and buy kayaks, climbing gear or mountain bikes. That day in winter, there were no black faces on Helvellyn.

Promotion is actually the job of the Cumbria Tourist Board, and an estimated 14 million visitors to the Lake District each year might seem plenty. However, many of those visits are day repeats by people living nearby in Cumbria and Lancashire. Relatively few are from inner-city Manchester or Liverpool, and practically none from the ethnic minorities who have, in a sense, replaced the mill workers.

Judy Ling Wong, director of the Black Environment Network, says that until the Labour government put social inclusion high on its agenda, it had never really crossed the minds of park authorities whether people were being excluded. "The assumption was that 'we are taking care of the park and everyone is welcome'. If certain groups didn't come, it was because they weren't interested."

The evidence is that many in the ethnic communities and the urban poor have little idea about national parks. Others are unnerved by the apparent wildness of the fells or expect as "townies" to feel unwelcome. When the Network introduced groups to the parks - for example, taking a group of Somalis and Yemenis rock- climbing and jumping into streams - the experience was a "complete revelation". The parks and crazy sports were new and exciting. But even for the initiated, the cost of transport remains a huge barrier.

The Network and the charity Council for National Parks (CNP) are putting together an ambitious bid for £100,000 of Lottery money to build links between the parks and ethnic communities. Officers of the council and park like Tiplady know broad-based public backing is vital. "The bottom line is that the parks are supported by public money," says Vicki Elcoate, the council's director. "That practical support derives from the fact that they are popular. But in order to conserve the parks, people need to be able to enjoy and understand them."

This anniversary year, the Lake District has been given extra money by the Government, taking its grant for next year to £4.6m - small beer compared with support for other national treasures such as the Royal Opera House. However, it is being closely watched. Chris Mullin, an Environment minister, is about to begin a study on how parks are governed. He will focus on the tricky balance between a park's role as "the outdoors of the towns" and its duty to residents who often resent their "busy-bodying" guardian.

Park boards are dominated by local councillors, and the suggestion is that the balance has tipped too much in favour of parochial vested interests. Ian Brodie, director of Friends of the Lake District, cites a decision to allow a major quarry extension on the fells above Ambleside. It flew in the face of national policy and the advice of the park's professional officers, but with jobs at stake local politics won the day.

Brodie, as a vigilant watchdog, is also critical of the way the park authority has allowed creeping development. A couple of caravans on a farm site become two more next year; or a plant nursery gradually grows into something akin to a shopping centre. On the other hand, the authority stood firm in the face of well-orchestrated business hostility to its 10mph speed limit for boats on Windermere. Parks are supposed to be for "quiet enjoyment", so speedboats and floating gin palaces must give way to canoeists and sail-boat yards.

Packing away the rope on Helvellyn, disputes over caravans and jet skis seem distant and trivial. So what if an angry woman wrote to the Westmorland Gazette blaming the park authority for an absence of Union flags on the Queen Mother's 100th birthday? The mountains are there to climb, come what may.

We should not be so complacent. A large part of our day on the hill had been spent tramping through a carefully managed landscape, though with its dark crags and ice-fringed torrents it looked wild enough. Thanks to the cash and cajoling of the park, paths are maintained, the fells farmed in a traditional manner, and an uneasy peace kept between visitors and residents. And how would that summit view have looked with lines of electricity pylons in the valleys?

Brodie advocates a new vision for national parks. "We are all so busy fire-fighting, we have never sat down together to think where are we going," he says. Yet I wonder how different that vision would be? Certainly there has to be fresh thinking on how to support hill farms - integral to the landscape but basically uneconomic - and some deterrent to the blight of second homes. But essentially the vision should be that of 50 years ago - that, like the masterpieces of the National Gallery, the beauty of the Lake District should be preserved at public cost and access ensured for the enjoyment of us all.

Call for a free copy of the events programme for the Lakes 50th anniversary (tel: 01539 446601).