Call for more diverse Lake District sparks row over area's future

National park’s boss accused of using the issue of diversity to turn region into a ‘theme park’

The head of the Lake District national park authority (LDNPA) has been accused of using the issue of diversity to push through commercial development schemes that would put the area’s Unesco world heritage status at risk.

Richard Leafe, the longstanding chief executive of the LDNPA in Cumbria, said the park was too white and middle-class and called for change to make it more inclusive.

However, his comments were criticised by some local politicians including Tony Lywood, a county councillor in Keswick, who said Leafe was using diversity to turn the area into a “theme park”.

“Mr Leafe seemingly wants to adjust the nature of the Lake District to diversify and attract a younger demographic, more from ethnic minorities and encourage visitors with disability. These are all excellent aims and how can anyone disagree with them?

“However, in terms of actual translated policy this means a new four-mile strip of urban tarmac on the rural path from Keswick to Threlkeld, large numbers of off-road 4x4s in Little Langdale, the consideration of numerous zip wire across Thirlmere, driverless electric pods and the possibility of a gondola system up to Whinlatter forest centre.

“Let us be quite clear that Mr Leafe may wish to introduce changes in the guise of promoting diversity of access, but the practical application of this policy ends up with increased commercial development and all the issues that go along with that,” said Lywood, who is a member of the LDNPA board.

Little Langdale in the Lake District
Little Langdale in the Lake District, which is one of the areas where campaigners have warned against the impact of 4x4s. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

In September, a government-commissioned report into the future of Britain’s protected landscapes criticised national parks for not doing enough to make people welcome.

And in a recent interview Leafe said the Lake District had become exclusive to one group and needed to adapt to continue to merit public funding. “We need to be able to sell the national park to everybody in Britain, all society, and it’s important that it doesn’t just become exclusive to one single use group,” he said.

“The moment we get into that position I think national parks start to lose their relevance and therefore the very reason for calling it a national park and spending public money.

“We are deficient in terms of young people, we are deficient in terms of black and minority ethnic communities, and we are not particularly well-visited by those who are less able in terms of their mobility.”

But Lywood said this was a smokescreen and Leafe had made the comments to distract from the real issues facing the national park.

“My worry is that the Lake District national park may move toward becoming the Lake District theme park and that ‘cultural and demographic diversity’ is merely a smokescreen to a green light on a development and adventure gold rush on what is a Unesco world heritage site,” Lywood said.

“If this is so, then come out and say it rather than wrap it up in a cloak of ethnicity, age and disability.”

The LDNPA is facing a judicial review in the high court supported by a £30,000 crowdfunding effort over its refusal to ban 4x4s and motorbikes from some fell trails, which campaigners say is ruining the tranquillity of the area.

Keswick town council has previously condemned an £8m project to create an accessible multi-user trail with a tarmac surface between Keswick and Threlkeld and passed a vote of no confidence in the LDNPA. The scheme, which will be completed at the end of 2020, was designed to replace a traditional stone-surfaced path that was destroyed by Storm Desmond in 2015.

In November England’s largest national park received a highly critical letter from advisers to Unesco, which granted it world heritage status in 2017 after a 20-year campaign.

The problem of off-road vehicles is particularly acute in Tilberthwaite valley and the valleys surrounding the villages of Little Langdale and Elterwater, and local people have been lobbying for a ban with the backing of the National Trust and a petition signed by more than 350,000 people.

Despite this, in October the LDNPA decided to continue allowing recreational off-road vehicles on dozens of farm tracks on this land – much of it once owned by Beatrix Potter and described by the writer and fell walker Alfred Wainwright as “the loveliest in Lakeland”.


Nazia Parveen North of England correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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