We need to protect the UK’s natural spaces to ensure the renaissance of domestic tourism continues

Rediscovering the Great British outdoors comes at a price, increased numbers at beauty spots. Public open spaces need to be managed and invested in, says Vince Cable

Saturday 22 August 2020 12:32 BST
We need to protect the UK's natural spaces to maintain the boost in local tourism
We need to protect the UK's natural spaces to maintain the boost in local tourism (Getty/iStock)

Feeling smug is a rather unpleasant but essentially harmless and enjoyable emotion. While hundreds of thousands of Brits were having to abort their continental holidays – dashing to the channel ports or airports, to avoid mandatory quarantine – my wife and I were enjoying an idyllic break hill walking. From a base in a caravan park, near the beach under the mountains in Snowdonia, we saw some of the best the UK has to offer.

Our fellow caravaners were respectful of each other’s space and children biked, scooted or toddled around the site in perfect safety. The Welsh sun beat down, to give us the best tan for years, and we needed recourse to the Irish Sea to keep cool. Up in the hills on the Precipice Walk (not quite as heroic as it sounds), there were more birds of prey than people and the most intrusive noise was of sheep.

Sceptics will point out that mist and rain is a more usual backcloth to a holiday in the Welsh mountains. But for us, at least, this was another reminder of what the Covid pandemic has brought alive: the massively important, yet unquantifiable, value of open space; from the local park to the grandeur of the National Parks; from the river or canal walk to our coastal beaches and cliffs.

Staycationers have also reinvigorated some of our unfashionable resorts. There has apparently been a surge in bookings for holidays in seaside towns which had, until recently, been in seemingly inexorable decline. Cleethorpes and Scarborough have seen spectacular increases in visitors. The latter is especially close to my heart. The highlight of an unexceptional childhood was the annual train journey from York to Scarborough. We would stay in a traditional B&B by night, and play with a bucket and spade on North Beach by day. We would marvel at the high tides breaking over Marine Drive and enjoy the scramble up to the town’s imposing castle.

In those days, to me, my parents and friends, nothing compared to the delights of the Yorkshire coast, let alone foreign countries where they ate frogs and snails. We later became sufficiently broad-minded to appreciate that Scotland, Wales and the Lakes were also wonderful before acknowledging that abroad had its attractions too. Scarborough was then largely forgotten, and stayed as such for a generation of Brits who equated summer with Spanish beaches and French gites. We have now come full circle.

All of this rediscovery of the great British outdoors comes at a price. A few miles from where we were hiking in Snowdonia, 5000 cars a day were arriving at the Rhyader waterfall, five times the capacity of the beauty spot’s parking and facilities, paralysing local roads. There were queues on the popular tracks up Snowdon (not unique to British mountains; the top of Everest has also seen serious congestion).

A few weeks ago, Bournemouth Beach and Durdle Door in Dorset saw severe overcrowding. Cornish fishing villages claim to be overwhelmed. The vast majority of visitors are respectful of each other and the locals, and they are keeping local businesses alive. But a few have left piles of litter behind and treated social distancing as a joke. Even on the thinly populated beaches of West Wales, there was enough plastic waste to give serious indigestion to the local fish and birds. Reports of wild camping also suggest that the undoubted delights of communing with nature are sometimes accompanied by a selfish disregard for others who have to clean up later.

What we are experiencing is the inevitable result of 60 million people, or at least the sizeable fraction who feel the need to experience some outdoor life beyond their gardens (if they have one), trying to enjoy limited, public, open spaces. We are fortunate in Britain that our forefathers had the vision and determination to create the great municipal parks which are largely intact despite neglect by cash-strapped local authorities.

We owe a great debt to the protesting trespassers, like those on Kinder Scout in the Peak District, who in the 1930s set in train the creation of what is now our national parks, once the preserve of landed gentry or kings. We should be opening up more of Britain. Although countryside legislation in 2000 created generally better access rights, as for the coastal paths, Scotland is way ahead of England in giving its people freedom to roam in their own country. But Scotland is a more egalitarian country than England, less cowed by country landowners.

Even with the Green Belt policy in and around English cities, most land is inaccessible to the public. While it is right to safeguard the crops and livestock of farmers and to demand considerate behaviour by visitors, there are numerous rights of way for walkers (and cyclists) which are blocked by the aggressive assertion of private property rights. An English Right to Roam would create more space within which the population can breathe.

Public open space needs to be managed. There is something called the “tragedy of the commons” when a shared, free, resource like fishing grounds or common grazing land is subject to a free-for-all. The resource becomes degraded and over-used and everyone loses. The same danger affects beauty spots and tourist honeypots. The market solution is to assign private property rights and charge for use. Sometimes charging is the only way to pay for a valued asset. Kew Gardens is a good example, but sadly a family visit now costs a small fortune and its beauties are restricted to foreign tourists and the affluent.

It would be grossly unfair for people of moderate means to be similarly denied access to parks and other public open spaces. Sometimes, other forms of rationing are called for. For example, Richmond Park is now closed to cars on certain days so that walkers and cyclists can enjoy this oasis of peace in London.

One additional bit of good news from the staycation surge, and the rediscovery of natural Britain, is that it also aligns with the needs of much of “left behind” Britain. Depressed towns like Oldham and Bradford are just a few miles from the moorland of the Pennines. Struggling resorts like Blackpool, Hastings, Margate, Cleethorpes, Rhyll and New Brighton have also seen better times, but have beaches and are seeing a return of the British tourist.

There is an opportunity now for the government to seize on this resurgence of domestic tourism, by expanding the ambitions of what it called a “sector deal” last year. UK tourists bring £30bn a year from urban centres to rural and seaside resorts, but little if any of the tax revenue from that spending stays in the host areas.

The industrial strategy should now be expanded to put that right by including spending on infrastructure to support tourist centres and giving to councils power to raise revenue from visitors. The result would be greater resources for the parks and open spaces we all enjoy, and a sustained renaissance of domestic tourism well beyond the coronavirus crisis.

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