For some time the Peak District National Park Authority (PDNPA) has been frantically seeking an organisation to take over the day-to-day management of the North Lees Estate. Originally at the behest of central government, they have been conducting a review of their various holdings hoping to make cost savings by entering into partnerships with other bodies who can honour the National Parks statutory responsibilities. This has so far resulted in the long term lease of the Eastern Moors to the National Trust (NT) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the disposal of The Roaches to the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust. Speculation has been rife within the outdoor community that a similar fate lies in store for North Lees and Stanage. Now, at the eleventh hour, there seems to have been a change of heart.
The agenda for a forthcoming meeting of the clumsily titled Audit Performance and Resources committee (APR) includes a report outlining potential methods for disposing of the North Lees Estate. Amongst a welter of impenetrable management-speak, certain phrases stick out like a sore thumb including much talk of "business case scenarios", "entrepreneurial solutions" and a telling reference to a "review of commercial options available for the PDNPA to run the estate."
Commercial options? What exactly is the PDNPA up to? Do they intend to continue managing the estate themselves and if so, why? There is precious little mention in the document of conservation and recreation, the PDNPA's statutory remit, which begs the question does the authority see North Lees as some kind of cash cow? Will we see compulsory payment for parking shortly? Will the campsite that has been a basic but welcome home to generations of walkers and climbers move upmarket in a bid to generate more income? It's worth bearing in mind that the authority recently reneged on an agreement to pass management of Miller's Dale Station to the Derbyshire Wildlife Trust. It is perfectly plausible that they did so because the extension of the Monsal Trail has seen parking receipts rise considerably. Have they come to the conclusion that a similar opportunity for income generation exists at North Lees? If I've misconstrued the authority's intentions, then it is purely because the report to the APR is a masterpiece of management claptrap, guaranteed to generate suspicion. It's worth remembering however that the authority failed to publish a summary of the bids submitted by organisations offering to manage The Roaches and chose instead to make a decision behind closed doors.
Equally suspicious is the way the Stanage Forum has been sidelined. The forum comprises representatives of all the user groups which throng Stanage and is a fine example of community involvement in the management of a popular yet fragile environment. A year ago the Stanage Forum agreed on fundamental principles that should guide the disposal of the estate. Are those now to be disregarded as the forum is largely ignored in this report?
The crucial point is that entering into long term agreement with another conservation body such as the NT, RSPB or Wildlife Trust will see investment in North Lees increase whereas, on the face of it, the PDNPA potentially sees the estate as a 'nice little earner'. This is a flagrant reversal of the founding principles of the national park. The authority should be seeking to protect North Lees not use it as a means of generating funds to bankroll a comfortable bureaucracy. In 1975, Sir Hugh Beach sold the estate to the National Park at far below the market value in order to preserve it for future generations. There are clear signs the PDNPA has forgotten that they hold this cherished landscape in trust. However, to mangle the old saying, the price of the freedom to roam is eternal vigilance.