Battlelines drawn over the Peak District's Stanage Edge
PUBLISHED: 00:00 04 November 2013
Campaigners fear people will be 'priced off' one of the country's best-loved walking and climbing beauty spots
Battle lines are being drawn over the future of one of the Peak District’s most popular beauty spots, described as ‘the jewel in the national park’s crown’. As well as a farm and woodland the North Lees Estate on the border of Yorkshire and Derbyshire includes the five-mile-long cliffs of Stanage Edge. The crag is the most popular in England and one of the forcing grounds of rock climbing for more than a century, attracting visitors from all over the world. But now the National Park Authority, faced with government-imposed spending cuts, is determined to make the estate pay its way and it is feared some users, especially young people, could be priced out of the area.
The authority, which owns the 1,350 acres (545 ha) estate south west of Sheffield, had been considering selling it or leasing it out but the idea caused fury among outdoor groups. Suspicion was further fuelled when a park authority report on options for the estate was kept secret. The British Mountaineering Council (BMC) responded with a Stand Up For Stanage internet campaign, including a nine-point charter for the estate’s future. It demanded that the estate remain open to all and that no commercial enterprise should be allowed to block access. At the same time it called for the estate to remain intact and wildlife and archaeological sites protected. Within a matter of days it attracted more than 12,000 signatures.
The park authority, apparently taken aback by the scale of the reaction, quickly announced it would be keeping North Lees and would come up with a plan to make the estate pay for itself by next summer. But if it expects that will be the end of the matter it will be disappointed.
The park authority refuses to say how much it costs to run the estate but, controversially, the break-even plan is likely to mean increased charges at some car parks, possibly charging for those that are currently free, as well as a potential fee increase at the no-frills North Lees campsite. Christopher Pennell, chairman of the park’s audit, resources and performance committee, said: ‘We wanted to give certainty on the future of the estate for the sake of everyone who knows and loves it. We concluded that the authority is in the best position to run the estate. We are fully committed to ensuring public access, conservation, education and innovation.
‘Our officers have given us a business plan showing how it could be brought to a position where we recover full costs. This will mean people may have to be prepared to pay more than they have before but they can rest assured that there would never be any restriction or charge for access and that any income generated on the estate will be re-invested in the estate.’
However, Henry Folkard, a BMC access volunteer, said: ‘Our campaign was never about who owns the estate - that’s for the national park to decide - but about how it is run. A lot of people care about the area and whoever takes it on must respect that. The park is seen as secretive and autocratic and that makes people suspicious.
‘There has been very little transparency here and until there is people will be dubious about what is going to happen. The jury is still out.
‘We know that the park authority has had a reduction in its grant but it needs to be very careful about increasing charges. The park needs to talk to all the stakeholders, not just climbers but the local community and other groups too, about what it is planning.
‘Our campaign was not just about access but accessibility and that includes the financial threshold for using the area. It’s no good saying people can have free access if they can’t afford to be there.’
At present a large lay-by with space for dozens of cars below the escarpment is free and charges on the North Lees campsite, set up to provide cheap accommodation, are just £6.50 a night.
‘Mr Folkard said that if charges were increased dramatically, impoverished young walkers and climbers may revert to wild camping which could create fresh problems.
‘I don’t see everybody being priced off Stanage but I can see some of the people they are trying to attract being priced out. The well-heeled middle class will be able to afford it but a lot of young people – those that society is trying to encourage to get out into a healthy outdoor lifestyle – are often pretty skint.
A lot of these things are interconnected and the park authority needs to be careful it does not create problems elsewhere, such as people sleeping rough in the woods, which could cost more to put right than the charges raise,’ he said.
One benefit of the free car park, he added, was that it concentrated access along designated flagged paths whereas in the past a parking free-for-all along roadside verges had led to almost 40 informal tracks being created and disturbing wild birds over a wide area. ‘The message to the park is “talk to us and let us help”,’ he said.
The nine points of the BMC’s Stanage Charter are:
• This publicly-owned estate must be retained forever for everyone. It should never be fragmented.
• North Lees Estate is on Open Access Land. Any commercial enterprise must not impede the spirit of access for all.
• Key stakeholders – recreational users and the local community – must be consulted before decisions are made. There must be transparency in decision-making.
• Caring for conservation, wildlife and landscape is paramount. There need be no conflict between this, adventure activity and quiet enjoyment.
• People value Stanage as a wild area kept free from intrusive developments. This must be safeguarded.
• The cultural and archaeological heritage of Stanage must be preserved.
• Any revenue raised from the estate should be reinvested in the landscape.
• Shooting rights should not be exercised.
• The local economy relies on preservation of these values and open access.