Against a backdrop of slashed public spending National Parks are pioneering news ways to boost squeezed budgets; but some solutions are proving controversial. The surprise announcement of a pilot scheme to charge for access in the Peaks has sparked a furious response from walkers' groups amid claims that the project, which has been introduced without prior consultation, undermines access legislation and amounts to a back door privatisation of the countryside.
Under the new Pay-per-View scheme, the first of its kind in the UK, the public will be charged a fee to use public footpaths at several popular sites across the Park, most notably the North Lees Estate which includes the iconic Stanage Edge. The charges will apply to all stakeholder groups in this heavily-used area, from walkers and cyclists to climbers and equestrians. During the pilot period a rate per mile will be levvied on a sliding scale proportionate to speed, from 20 pence to 50 pence per mile. This will help offset the greater erosion damage caused by runners and cyclists, the Park claims.
'Well-maintained footpaths and healthy upland habitats are luxuries that the public purse can no longer afford'
Compared with indoor sports amenities the charges represent value for money, officials insist, though they have refused to rule out the possibility of future fare hikes.
The scheme will see locking stiles installed at one-mile intervals, operated by pre-paid swipe cards that can be topped up at local shops, visitor centres and by mobile phone. The technology is cost effective, weatherproof and simple to use, claim Scherz-Offyerbach, the for-profit firm awarded the contract to build and operate the system, which has been adapted from urban public transport. Start-up costs for this Public Private Partnership will be met by a grant from the Peaks Notional Park Authority (PNPA) - an as yet undisclosed sum. Under the terms of the 30-year contract the PNPA will lease back the turnstile infrastructure from Scherz-Offyerbach at a 'competitive rate', according to a Park spokesman.
A proportion of the remaining revenue raised through the fees will be channelled to the park's ranger service for footpath maintenance and conservation work, helping to free up more of the Authority's budget to explore commercial ventures and business partnerships. According to the PNPA, the new system is the fairest way to pay for path upkeep as it directly impacts only those who use the trail network.
'Charging for access is already commonplace in many parts of the world, it is a tried and trusted funding stream'
'Outdoor-goers derive great benefit from the National Park, but give very little back' said a Park spokesman. 'A typical walker contributes a fraction to the economy of the area they are visiting, while climbers are notorious for wanting something for nothing. But someone's got to pay.'
'Looking after our paths and crags is an expensive business with very little chance of generating a meaningful return. Until now it simply hasn't proved cost effective. But the new system is a win-win for almost everyone. We get a state of the art outdoor ticketing system, and the outdoor-going public can enjoy well-kept trails and crags in the knowledge that they are directly contributing both to the upkeep of the Park and to the wellbeing of the local enterprise economy.'
Though all the trial trails are on land owned by the PNPA, other major landowners in the Peaks are reported to have expressed interest in the results, and access campaigners fear that if it proves a success Pay-per-View will set a precedent that others will be inclined to emulate.
'This will make tea shops and car park charges look like pin money' said one opponent, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of upsetting anyone.
'In these cash-strapped times what big landowner or conservation organisation is going to pass up on this golden fundraising opportunity? First they'll come for Stanage, and if we don't speak out it will eventually be the whole of the Peaks. Then one day they'll be charging for every hill in the land. You and I and tens of thousands of other ordinary walking folk will end up subsidising the entire show. It's a disgrace and I'm not afraid to say so. But please don't quote me.'
'Ordinary walking folk will end up subsidising the whole show. It's a disgrace.'
But what's the alternative? To make the significant cost savings it needs the PNPA has already 'disposed of' (sold) the Roaches to Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, and offloaded their Eastern Moors property on a long term lease to the National Trust and RSPB. Should the Authority sell its remaining landholdings, or seek to maximise the return it can make from them? The future of the North Lees estate, perhaps even of every hill and crag in Britain, hinges on this question. A recent report of the Park's Audit, Resources & Performance Committee has mooted a 'thorough review of the commercial options available for the Authority to manage the Estate [to] ...include risk testing of best, worst and most likely scenarios for income generation.' With the introduction of Pay-per-View it seems this process has already started.
Will walkers be willing to accommodate the new regime, or might they simply head elsewhere?
'Nobody has problems using turnstiles on the London Underground' said the PNPA spokesman, 'so why not in the Peaks too? I have great faith in the ability of the British public to learn to live with anything.'
'Charging for access to the wilderness is already commonplace in many parts of the world, it is a tried and trusted funding stream. If it turns out that the public are tending to avoid the areas covered by this pilot project then we may consider extending it.'
The law requires the Authority to carry out two "statutory purposes": to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area; and to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the parks' special qualities by the public. While carrying out these purposes they also have a "duty" to seek to foster the economic and social well-being of the communities within the National Park.
'We believe that Pay-per-View ticks all these boxes' said the spokesman. 'It represents an opportunity for all, and will be heavily promoted; it will fund our ongoing conservation work; and it helps foster the economic well-being of a company with interests in the area.'
Scherz-Offyerbach, a German company with a small branch office near the Peaks, declined our invitation to comment.
However Central Government has been less reticent.
'We are delighted' enthused a Cabinet source at a recent private supper. 'The PNPA have demonstrated exactly the sort of enterprising zeal that Britain needs. Their brave decision to enlist the expertise of the Private Sector treads new ground, and shows that even in the most remote corner of our green and pleasant land there can be no hiding place for bloated, unreformed Public Services.'
'Well-maintained footpaths and healthy upland habitats are luxuries that the public purse can no longer afford. If I want to shoot grouse then I have to pay for the privilege, and the same principle should apply to walking and climbing. These are niche activities enjoyed by a lucky few, but to which every taxpayer in the land has had to contribute in the past. We hear a lot about the squeezed middle; well, why should Middle England pay through general taxation for the pedestrian pleasure of our friends in the north? They can't have their Kendal mint cake, and eat it too. The Notional Park's new form of direct taxation on service users is the fairest way to fund such excesses, and a model for others to follow. We are all in it together.'
'It's 80 years since Communist demonstrators held Kinder Scout to ransom, and ever since successive Governments have cowered beneath their boot. Until now we have failed to make the red-socked freeloader pay his way in the countryside. This is a victory for common sense and the ordinary man. And I'm sure my Coalition colleagues over in the Conservative Party will agree.'