The National Trust are piloting a scheme that requires outdoor activity providers and event organisers to pay for a license to use Trust land. The trial applies to 21 of their properties in England. Critics have raised concerns about how practical it will be to implement, its potential impact on smaller outdoor operators, and the precendent it could set around charging for access to the countryside.
Against a background of budget squeezes the pressure to monetise the outdoors appears to be growing; only this week a parish council made outraged headlines for voting to charge organisers of the popular Parkrun event for using a public park.
The activity license is being trialled at:
1. Carding Mill Valley, Shropshire
2. Ashridge, Hertfordshire
3. Alderley Edge portfolio, Cheshire
4. Wimpole, Cambridgeshire
5. Killerton, Devon
6. New Forest, Hampshire
7. Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire
8. Buckland Abbey, Devon
9. Lake District, Cumbria
10. Gloucestershire portfolio
11. Purbeck, Dorset
12. Arlington, Devon
13. Osterley, London
14. Longshaw, Derbyshire
15. Gibside, Gateshead
16. Speke, Merseyside
17. Penrose, Cornwall
18. Attingham, Shropshire
19. Birling Gap & Slindon, W.Sussex
20. Formby, Merseyside
21.Tyntesfield/Leigh Woods nr Bristol
So what on earth are the National Trust thinking? The primary intention is twofold: to more closely manage the activities of commercial groups using their land; and to raise money for its upkeep, in part of offset the impact of group use.
We asked them to explain the rationale behind their licensing scheme, and to answer criticisms voiced by the BMC and others.
“The National Trust is first and foremost a conservation charity, established to protect and promote places of historic interest and natural beauty" a National Trust spokesperson told us.
"We want everyone to enjoy the beautiful landscapes we look after. However, we need to balance the desire for outdoors events and activities with our promise to look after the places in our care, now and in the future. We need to ensure any events or activities don’t have a lasting detrimental effect on the wild habitats, landscape and spirit of place around them."
“We are currently piloting a scheme for licensing outdoor activities and events at twenty-one National Trust properties."
"By requiring outdoor events and activities organised for commercial gain to acquire formal permission, we hope to be able to avoid conflicts between conservation and recreation, protecting open spaces from long term damage."
Crucially the cash will not go into a central pot, the National Trust assure us, but stay in the location in which it is generated:
"Any income from third party commercial activity that takes place on National Trust land will be invested back in to conservation work” they say.
The cost of the license will be set by each individual National Trust property, we're told.
"We expect that the property will charge an initial, one-off set up fee of between £50-£100 depending on the scale of the event or activity and the set up time required of the National Trust" explains the spokesperson.
"We have suggested that roughly 3% of the participation fees from each event or activity takes place be paid to the National Trust, however this is at the discretion of the National Trust property manager."
But the BMC is concerned about the very concept of the licensing pilot, and suggests it could have a number of unwelcome effects on the provision of outdoor education and instruction in England & Wales.
"Where large scale one off events charging high entry fees and having a considerable impact are concerned, some form of payback is reasonable and a licensing system will help to control how these events happen on Trust land and reduce damage" says Rob Dyer, Access and Conservation Officer at the BMC.
"However the principle of requiring any provider receiving money for their services (including ‘one man band’ freelance instructors and Local Authority funded outdoor centres) to use a licensing system raises a number of questions."
Among the BMC's questions and concerns are these:
- Much of the Trust’s land which is used for climbing and walking instruction is either a Public Right of Way or designated as access land under CRoW. Anyone has a legal right to use a PRoW regardless of whether they are a commercial or recreational user and whilst commercial use of access land is chargeable by the landowner, if the primary purpose for accessing the land is educational, there is no right to charge. The BMC strongly supports the view that the majority of climbing and walking instruction on Trust land can be considered educational, despite the instructor or leader charging a fee.
- There may be a loss of flexibility inherent in the licencing process, with providers having to apply in advance, giving details such as numbers of students, planned routes etc. This isn’t workable in practice as providers need to be able to react to changeable weather and conditions and may receive last minute bookings.
- Applying a charge to providers means that they will likely have to increase their fees, given that many (in particular freelance instructors and LEA centres) are operating on relatively low profit margins already. This could have knock on effects of discouraging potential students from hiring a provider to give them proper training. Equally, with the example of LEA centres who are already suffering from stringent government cuts, this could make it even more difficult for them to balance the books and continue to function. It would be a great shame if an unintended outcome of the licencing system were to reduce participation in the outdoors amongst young people – something the National Trust themselves are promoting currently (see here).
- Another unintended result could be that groups are displaced into less appropriate venues where there is no licencing system – potentially crags or hills that are simply less suited to group use for whatever reason, or even into ecologically sensitive areas where large groups could have a negative impact on rare species.
- This may also set a precedent for other larder landowners to licence and charge for commercial access – this could become increasingly complicated as providers will often travel across multiple landowner’s land during the course of a day out, potentially leading to significant costs to the provider and time required to administrate these systems.
With the BMC's points in mind we put the following questions to the National Trust:
UKHillwalking: If it is not applicable to rights of way, then how is licensing going to be managed and enforced on the ground?
National Trust: Licensing of events on Rights of Way is the responsibility of the local Highways Agency. However, we believe that it is reasonable for events with larger numbers of participants that the National Trust license the spreading room either side of the footpath. Large events can have a considerable impact upon the land and we think that it’s only fair that event organisers recognise this.
Individual properties will be responsible for the management and enforcement of activity. We recommend that if activity or event organisers are concerned about the impact of the license scheme on their activities, they contact their local property.
How might you deal with legal loopholes, for instance the grey area in what constitutes ‘commercial’ activity rather than, say, ‘educational’?
We have taken a view that education groups should be exempt from the licensing fee, as we want people to continue to learn in our outdoors spaces. Duke of Edinburgh groups will also be exempt, but we would ask that providers do get in touch with property teams to plan their visits if possible.
We recommend that those groups running commercial, educational activities do set up a license. Properties involved in the pilot will look at applications for a license on a case by case basis.
How are licenses being administered, and does this not place an onerous burden of paperwork on both property managers and small outdoor activity firms?
The 21 sites involved in the pilot scheme have copies of a paper document to be completed by the applicant to set up the initial license. When a provider comes to doing another activity our staff will have their details and will simply copy them over – no extra work required. We are currently looking into developing a web based system to further simplify the application process.
What recourse would you have if commercial activity was found to be taking place un-licensed?
This would be at the discretion of the property manager. However, the National Trust byelaws allow us some measure of legal enforcement against those using National Trust land for commercial activity without the permission of the property manager. Any issue of non-compliance by a licensed activity provider would be regarded as a breach of contract.
It is important to stress that the activity license scheme is currently a pilot; over the coming months we will be looking closely at issues such as compliance.
What would you say to anyone worried that licensing sets a precedent that other smaller landowners might follow, piecemeal?
The National Trust is not the first or only organisation to license activity on its land. The Royal Parks, United Utilities, Forestry Commission and Peak District National Park Authority all use or are exploring the use of licenses on their land.
If one aim of licensing is to help raise money for the property, does this risk contradicting another of the aims - minimising damage to the land? After all, the more licenses that are granted, the more funds can be raised. Which imperative would take precedence, commerce or conservation?
Our primary goal is conservation. Any income that is generated from the license will be used to pay for core conservation work at those places.
If the purpose of the pilot is to iron out some of these concerns, then to what extent will feedback from licensees inform the shape of any roll-out of licensing?
We will be piloting the license through the Summer and into Autumn, before conducting a wider consultation process. We are working with many activity providers and organisations who have been contacted and asked for their thoughts on the process and will be involved in the consultation. Members of our central team are now meeting with some of these groups – including the Institute of Outdoor Learning and Association of Heads of Outdoor Education Centres – individually to gather their initial thoughts. Other smaller activity providers have also contacted us and will be asked to feed back in the Autumn. We will absolutely take all of these into consideration and will agree any future licensing with the support of these groups.
On what basis will the NT decide if the pilot has been a success?
We will be reviewing all of the feedback received on the pilot, nationally and locally and we will work through any concerns/problems with the process in partnership with outdoors activity providers and our property teams. Success for us would be people continuing to enjoy the outdoors and understanding how they have contributed to its preservation for future generations.
Have you considered any alternative options for raising money from commercial activity on NT land? The BMC for instance have mooted a badge scheme.
Our central team have already met with the British Mountaineering Council to discuss the pilot scheme. We are open to their suggestions on how we can achieve our core conservation outcomes by working more closely together. In developing the activity license we considered other organisations’ schemes from both the UK and further afield.
We'll give the last word to the BMC:
"The BMC completely understand that managing land can be difficult and costs money - after all the BMC owns and manages various crags itself" says Rob Dyer.
"However a licensing system that could make our existing excellent system of instruction, (which values highly care for the environment and landscape, safety and promoting good practice) difficult to continue running as it currently does through loss of flexibility, increased costs and administration."
"The Trust are keen to point out that this is just a pilot project, with the finished version planned to be rolled out in 2017. They are keen to get as much feedback as possible on how the pilot is working for providers on the ground in the 21 pilot areas so please don’t hesitate to contact your local property if you are a provider within one of these areas and copy in the BMC by emailing email@example.com so that we have clear examples of how the pilot scheme is affecting providers in our continued discussions with the Trust."