Like our seaside towns, Dartmoor has been under pressure from people seeking release from lockdown by travelling to beautiful places. The National Park Chief Executive says every day is like a ‘summer bank holiday on steroids’.
The downside is that the managing organisations have to deal with the costs of cleaning up with no extra revenue. The Dartmoor National Park says it can cope, but this Thursday EDDC Cabinet decided to spend nearly £77K in order to extend the opening of toilets to 14 sites. These will be open until 8pm in the summer only, closing toilets at 5pm in the winter. Covid-19 means toilets that are open require extra cleaning.
Closing toilets was part of economy measures put in place for this year’s budget and the money will have to be found from cuts elsewhere. There was general support from Council members that something had to be done urgently and the Cabinet also agreed to seek a meeting with local MPs .
The Chief Executive also talks about how the National Park intends to respond to the Glover Landscape Review (that proposed the Government consider creating a new “East Devon and Dorset” National Park ).
Unprecedented numbers of visitors have made their way to Dartmoor National Park over the last month, with every day like a ‘summer bank holiday on steroids’.
The majority of the visitors have come, enjoyed themselves and respected Dartmoor, Dr Kevin Bishop, chief executive of the National Park, told Friday’s Authority meeting, but he added that sadly there is a minority that have not.
“How we seek to tackle the anti-social behaviour of this minority is one of key challenges going forward,” he added, saying: “The verbal abuse of our staff is unacceptable as is the damage to sensitive habitats and the impact on local communities.”
Dr Bishop was providing the meeting with an update on how Dartmoor National Park has responded to the coronavirus crisis and the impacts, challenges and the opportunities it can bring them in the future.
He said that while the pandemic is having a financial impact on the work of the Authority, at this current time they believe that they can manage through this crisis without the need for additional support during this year, adding: “We have always been prudent in our budget setting in terms of forecasts of external income generation and this prudence is helping us to manage the current situation.
“This is obviously dependent on how the pandemic develops, but our key concern is the longer term implications for our core funding. Given that we have had real terms cuts to our core funding in eight of the last 10 years austerity never really ended for the Authority.
“COVID-19 is having an impact on our revenue budget for 2020/21 but we are seeking to manage this through limited use of the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and in-year savings. Unlike some other National Park Authorities, who are able to generate significant sums of income from assets that they own, we have few assets from which to trade and thus have more limited exposure to loss of commercial income.
“We are losing income through sales in visitor centres, lack of car park charges and the waiving of vending licence charges, and these losses then need to be balanced against savings from project spend, stock acquisition, travel etc.”
Donna Healy, Head of Business Support, added that the 2019/20 budget saw a revenue surplus for the Authority of £179,957 against the target budget, up from the estimated £116,998 surplus forecast at month 9, partly because stock for resale in the Visitor Centres was been deferred until they are able to re-open.
But she said that because of the enforced closure of the visitor centres and the decision to suspend parking charges, until they resumed charging on June 9, the Authority had brought in no income from these sources in the first two months of 2020/21.
Initially visitors were strongly encouraged not to travel to Dartmoor as part of the lockdown restrictions, but following the Government announcement to allow unlimited outdoor exercise and driving to do this from May 13, Dr Bishop said: “Since then we have seen unprecedented levels of visitors to the National Park. It has seemed as if every day has been a ‘summer bank holiday on steroids’.
“During lock-down the benefits of less motorised traffic were enjoyed across the UK, but with returning visitors we have been quickly reminded of the negative impact of numbers of cars on Dartmoor.”
Plans to support the further development of sustainable travel, including exploring options and funding opportunities for cycling & walking provision along the A38 corridor, and enhancing the existing network and to develop new cycles routes into and around the National Park, are being developed, with Dr Bishop adding: “We are now exploring whether there might be funding for these as part of the Government’s commitment to promote more walking and cycling and wider green recovery.”
Dr Bishop added: “The Coronavirus pandemic has provided significant challenges for the way the Authority operates and for Dartmoor communities. We were, and are, determined to do our best to ensure we maintain service provision and help ‘look after’ Dartmoor: its people, heritage, wildlife and landscapes.
“There are some opportunities through this pandemic that we need to build upon, such as sustaining the community spirit and volunteer activity that we have witnessed in our towns, villages and communities.
“We also sense that since the easing of lockdown we have seen more first time visitors to Dartmoor – people seeking a ‘safe place’ to relax and exercise. This provides an opportunity to ensure that these people develop a ‘love and respect’ of the National Park and its communities; and to help them lead healthier and happier lives
“The COVID-19 outbreak is having a profound effect on rural economies. Some of this could be positive – the move towards local shopping and collaborative working, but other elements could be challenging – the rise of the cashless society and online shopping which will potentially threaten local services.
“We may see increased demand for rural housing as people seek to move out of cities, potentially inflating house prices and increasing the affordability gap. The move away from public transport could threaten remaining bus services, while the hospitality and leisure sector faces real challenges especially if there is no 2020 summer season.”
Philip Sanders added: “There is lots of house building taking place around in the area around the Park and that will put pressure on the Park. While the idea is to encourage people to use it, the Park has a finite capacity. I don’t want to encourage people not to visit Dartmoor but we have to be conscious of the impact that they have on the very thing they are going to see.”
The Authority meeting noted the report on the response to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2019/20 budget, and the key proposals contained in the Glover Landscapes Review.
The Landscapes Review outlines a compelling ambition to make our National Parks and AONBs better for nature and better for people, with Dr Bishop adding: “This is an ambition that the Authority supports but our concern is that this ambition is not matched with a rigorous, evidence based analysis of what is required to turn ambition into reality.
“If the ambition outlined by the Landscapes Review is to be delivered then the National Park Authority needs to be provided with the tools and powers to meet forthcoming challenges and make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead. We are keen to work with Government to ensure that the Landscapes Review does lead to lasting, positive change that enhances Dartmoor and other National Parks for the benefit of all – local communities, existing visitors and potential new visitors.”
Mr Sanders added: “The Government will have to tell us how they want it to be achieved and they will have to fund it as we don’t have sufficient money to implement most of the recommendations.”