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National parks of England and Wales facts for kids

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The national parks of England and Wales are areas of relatively undeveloped and scenic landscape that are designated under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Despite their similar name, national parks in England and Wales are quite different from national parks in many other countries, which are usually owned and managed by the government as a protected community resource, and which do not usually include permanent human communities. In England and Wales, designation as a national park may include substantial settlements and human land uses which are often integral parts of the landscape, and land within a national park remains largely in private ownership.

There are currently thirteen national parks (Welsh: parciau cenedlaethol) in England and Wales. Each park is operated by its own national park authority, with two "statutory purposes":

  1. to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area, and
  2. to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the park's special qualities by the public.

An estimated 110 million people visit the national parks of England and Wales each year. Recreation and tourism bring visitors and funds into the parks, to sustain their conservation efforts and support the local population through jobs and businesses. These visitors also bring problems, such as erosion and traffic congestion, and conflicts over the use of the parks' resources. Access to cultivated land is restricted to bridleways, public footpaths, and permissive paths, with most (but not all) uncultivated areas in England and Wales having right of access for walking under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.


Brecon beacons arp
Part of the Brecon Beacons National Park, looking from the highest point of Pen y Fan (886 m/2907 feet) to Cribyn (795 m/2608 feet).
Wastwater, Yewbarrow and Great Gable - - 1546772
The head of Wasdale - this view appears on the logo of the Lake District National Park Authority

Archaeological evidence from prehistoric Britain shows that the areas now designated as national parks have been occupied by humans since the Stone Age, at least 5,000 years ago and in some cases much earlier.

Before the 19th century, relatively wild, remote areas were often seen simply as uncivilised and dangerous. In 1725 Daniel Defoe described the High Peak as "the most desolate, wild and abandoned country in all England". However, by the early 19th century, romantic poets such as Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth wrote about the inspirational beauty of the "untamed" countryside. Wordsworth described the English Lake District as a "sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy" in 1810. This early vision, based in the Picturesque movement, took over a century, and much controversy, to take legal form in the UK with the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.

The idea for a form of national parks was first proposed in the United States in the 1860s, where national parks were established to protect wilderness areas such as Yosemite. This model has been used in many other countries since, but not in the United Kingdom.

After thousands of years of human integration into the landscape, Britain lacks any substantial areas of wilderness. Furthermore, those areas of natural beauty so cherished by the romantic poets were often only maintained and managed in their existing state by human activity, usually agriculture.

Government support is established

By the early 1930s, increasing public interest in the countryside, coupled with the growing and newly mobile urban population, was generating increasing friction between those seeking access to the countryside and landowners. Alongside of direct action trespasses, such as the mass trespass of Kinder Scout, several voluntary bodies took up the cause of public access in the political arena.

In 1931, Christopher Addison (later Lord Addison) chaired a government committee that proposed a 'National Park Authority' to choose areas for designation as national parks. A system of national reserves and nature sanctuaries was proposed:

"(i) to safeguard areas of exceptional natural interest against (a) disorderly development and (b) spoliation; (ii) to improve the means of access for pedestrians to areas of natural beauty; and (iii) to promote measures for the protection of flora and fauna."

However, no further action was taken after the intervention of the 1931 General Election.

The voluntary Standing Committee on National Parks first met on 26 May 1936 to put the case to the government for national parks in the UK. After World War II, the Labour Party proposed the establishment of national parks as part of the post-war reconstruction of the UK. A report by John Dower, secretary of the Standing Committee on National Parks, to the Minister of Town and Country Planning in 1945 was followed in 1947 by a Government committee, this time chaired by Sir Arthur Hobhouse, which prepared legislation for national parks, and proposed twelve national parks. Sir Arthur had this to say on the criteria for designating suitable areas:

The essential requirements of a National Park are that it should have great natural beauty, a high value for open-air recreation and substantial continuous extent. Further, the distribution of selected areas should as far as practicable be such that at least one of them is quickly accessible from each of the main centres of population in England and Wales. Lastly there is merit in variety and with the wide diversity of landscape which is available in England and Wales, it would be wrong to confine the selection of National Parks to the more rugged areas of mountain and moorland, and to exclude other districts which, though of less outstanding grandeur and wildness, have their own distinctive beauty and a high recreational value.

National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949

The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 was passed with all party support. The first ten national parks were designated as such in the 1950s under the Act in mostly poor-quality agricultural upland. Much of the land was still owned by individual landowners, often private estates, but there was also property owned by public bodies such as the Crown, or charities which allow and encourage access such as the National Trust. Accessibility from the cities was also considered important.

Other areas were also considered: for example, parts of the coast of Cornwall were considered as a possible national park in the 1950s but were thought to be too disparate to form a single coherent national park and were eventually designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) instead. The north Pennines were also considered for designation as a national park in the 1970s but the proposal was thought to be administratively too difficult because the area was administered by five different county councils.

Later additions

The Broads in East Anglia are not in the strictest sense a national park, being run by a separately constituted Broads Authority set up by a special Act of Parliament in 1988 and with a structure in which conservation is subordinate to navigational concerns (see Sandford Principle below), but it is generally regarded as being "equivalent to" a national park.

The New Forest, which includes the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and old-growth forest in the heavily populated south east of the country was designated as a national park on 1 March 2005.

On 31 March 2009, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn announced that the South Downs would be designated a national park. The South Downs National Park came into effect on 31 March 2010.


Following the Environment Act 1995, each national park has been managed by its own national park authority since April 1997. Previously, all but the Peak District and the Lake District were governed by the local county councils. The Peak District and the Lake District, the first two national parks to be designated, were under the control of planning boards that were independent of the local county councils.

Each authority is required to carry out two "statutory purposes":

  1. to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area; and
  2. to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the parks' special qualities by the public.

These purposes can conflict: in such cases, under the "Sandford Principle", conservation comes first. This principle was given statutory force by section 62 of the Environment Act 1995, although there are no explicit provisions as to how wildlife is to be preserved. In pursuing these purposes, national park authorities also have a duty to foster the social and economic well-being of their local communities.

Slightly over half the members of each national park authority are appointees from the principal local authorities covered by the park; the remainder are appointed by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (in England) or the Welsh Ministers (in Wales), some to represent local parish or community councils, others selected to represent the "national interest". The Broads Authority also has members appointed by Natural England, Great Yarmouth Port Authority and the Environment Agency. The national park authorities and the Broads Authority are covered by similar regulatory controls to those applied to local councils.

Funding for national parks is complex, but the full cost of each park authority is funded from central government funds. In the past this was partly paid for by local authorities, and refunded to them from the government to varying degrees. In 2003/2004, the park authorities received around £35.5 million of central government funding.

Natural England is the statutory body responsible for designating new national parks in England, subject to approval by the Secretary of State; Natural Resources Wales designates new national parks in Wales, subject to approval by the Welsh Ministers. The Association of National Park Authorities exists to provide the park authorities with a single voice when dealing with government and its agencies. The Campaign for National Parks (formerly Council for National Parks) is a charity that works to protect and enhance the national parks of England and Wales.

Development and land use planning in national parks

National park authorities are the strategic and local planning authorities for their areas, so that the local district or unitary councils do not exercise planning control in an area covered by a national park. Consequently, they have to perform all the duties of a local government planning authority.

They are responsible for maintaining the local development framework — the spatial planning guide for their area. They also grant planning consent for development, within the constraints of the Framework. This gives them very strong direct control over residential and industrial development, and the design of buildings and other structures; as well as strategic matters such as mineral extraction.

The national park authorities' planning powers vary only slightly from other authorities, but the policies and their interpretation are stricter than elsewhere. This is supported and encouraged by the government who regard:

"National Park designation as conferring the highest status of protection as far as landscape and scenic beauty are concerned." The Countryside — Environmental Quality and Economic and Social Development (1997)

Contribution to the local economy

Tourism is an important part of the economy of the regions which contain national parks. Through attractions, shops and accommodation, visitors provide an income and a livelihood to local employers and farmers. This income provides jobs for the park. For example, within the Peak District National Park the estimate in 2004 for visitor spending is £185 million, which supports over 3,400 jobs, representing 27% of total employment in the national park.

List of national parks

Key National park Established km² sq mi
1 Peak District 17 April 1951 1,438 555
2 Lake District 9 May 1951 2,362 912
3 Snowdonia
(Welsh: Parc Cenedlaethol Eryri)
18 October 1951 2,142 827
4 Dartmoor 30 October 1951 956 369
5 Pembrokeshire Coast
(Welsh: Arfordir Penfro)
29 February 1952 620 240
6 North York Moors 28 November 1952 1,436 554
7 Yorkshire Dales 16 November 1954 2,178 841
8 Exmoor 19 October 1954 693 268
9 Northumberland 6 April 1956 1,049 405
10 Brecon Beacons
(Welsh: Bannau Brycheiniog)
17 April 1957 1,351 522
11 The Broads 1 April 1989 303 117
12 New Forest 1 March 2005 580 220
13 South Downs 12 November 2009 1,641 634
  Established total   16,749 6,467
National Parks in England and Wales
Thirteen areas are designated as national parks in England and Wales; the Broads now have 'equivalent status'.

At the beginning of 2005, some 9.3% of the area of England and Wales lay within national parks; the addition of South Downs and the New Forest would increase this proportion to 10.7%. The three Welsh national parks cover around 20% of the land area of Wales.

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