This is a post I’ve been wanting to get around to writing for a little while. It’s an issue that comes up often, but one tweet yesterday (or the article it linked to) really pushed me over the edge on this one:
“Do you agree,” they ask. No sirs. I do not.
The article is a diatribe on the subject of the management of our National Parks. Nothing intrinsically wrong there, it’d be a bit pot/kettle/black for me to decry a good diatribe. They do work best, however, when you agree with the steam being vented.
The two bits that particular ruffled my feathers were:
“It is shameful that the National Park Authority have to be reminded of their fundamental duty as guardians of perhaps our most-loved National Park but as FLD point out, much of the Local Plan “conflicts directly with the Sandford Principle, which prioritises the environment and landscape of the Lake District over damaging development” (Emphasis added)
“Their primary responsibility is to care for the natural beauty and cultural values of the National Park, and that responsibility comes way before anything else. This is what the Sandford Principle means…” (Emphasis added)
What is The Sandford Principle, and what are the duties of National Parks?
Ah, the Sandford Principle. Much quoted. Much abused. The principle, as coded into legislation, attempts to create a balance between the conservation remit of a National Park and its remit to promote access to them.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
National Parks in England and Wales have two statutory purposes. These are defined in the Environment Act 1995. This amended the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949 and defined these two purposes:
“(a) of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the areas specified in the next following subsection; and
(b) of promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of those areas by the public.”
Now. There will always be some situations where such dual roles clash. So, for the first time, the Environment Act 1995 also codified into law the Sandford Principle, which had been around since the 1960s, using slightly different wording to that proposed originally by Lord Sandford. The Act states that relevant authorities should:
“have regard to the purposes specified […] and, if it appears that there is a conflict between those purposes, shall attach greater weight to the purpose of conserving and enhancing the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area comprised in the National Park.”
So what does this mean?
The two quoted sections from the legislation have clear, but often misunderstood, and frequently misused, interpretations and effects:
Conserving and enhancing: This is fairly clear*. National Parks have a legal duty to work to conserve and enhance the environment – both natural and cultural.
Promoting opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment…: This is less clear, and sometimes misunderstood. The word ‘access’ doesn’t appear in this sentence. But it is widely accepted that promoting and improving access to the landscapes within a National Park is at the very core of this purpose. This is so well established that any claim otherwise is simply disingenuous.
Both of these hold equal weight: These two purposes are statutory requirements of a National Park. They aren’t ‘nice to do’ or ‘so long as everyone is happy’ – both purposes carry equal weight and National Park Authorities (and other Authorities with remits within National Parks) are legally required to work on both.
Sandford does not mean conservation has a greater priority than access/enjoyment: This is what so riled me about the article quoted at the start of this post. As a reminder this stated, “that responsibility [to conservation] comes way before anything else”. It does not. The Sandford Principle is a subtle tool for getting out of the occasional rock-and-a-hard-place situations having two equally-weighted purposes can bring. It isn’t a silver bullet to kill dead any new development or initiative just because someone or some group doesn’t like it.
Despite this, it is often claimed that the law means conservation is the primary purpose. But my question would be: if the legislation had intended one of the purposes to be primary, and one subservient, would the Sandford Principle really have been the best way to achieve that? After all, the legislation also states:
“A National Park authority, in pursuing in relation to the National Park the purposes specified in […] this Act, shall seek to foster the economic and social well-being of local communities within the National Park, but without incurring significant expenditure in doing so, and shall for that purpose co-operate with local authorities and public bodies whose functions include the promotion of economic or social development within the area of the National Park.”
This is legislation speak for ‘try to create economic development as you carry out your duties’. This is a duty, but clearly defined by the legislation as being secondary to the two purposes. If the legislation had intended one purpose to hold a greater priority it would have made that explicit. It wouldn’t have used (nor would it have needed) a clever backstop like the Sandford Principle.
This is fundamental to our National Parks. Sandford doesn’t mean that conservation has overall priority – just that where careful management, clever engagement, proactive co-operation are not enough to mitigate against an irrevocable** conflict between the two purposes than then conservation should carry greater weight. It’s nuanced to have two rules with equal weight, but with a release-valve mechanism to settle an intractable clash. But that doesn’t mean we should lose the nuance – we should protect it. But it is hard to challenge the now deeply entrenched view that the Sandford Principle prioritises conservation such that National Park Authorities (and others) are obliged to attach more weight to conservation than anything else.
So why does it matter – I’m a conservationist aren’t I?
Yes, of course I am. It feels very uncomfortable to be making an argument when I know it could be interpreted as a belief that access should have no limits, or that I’m anti-conservation. That is one big reason why this matters so much. The Sandford Principle is a quite neat little bit of legislation that actually helps access and conservation work together for the sustainable access to the outdoors we all want.
But there are other reasons why this matters:
National Parks grew from the access movement
This is perhaps just a personal reflection, but our National Parks are a direct result of the campaigns in the early 1900s to get the need for greater access to the outdoors recognised. Without those campaigns there would be no National Parks now. Conservation and access grew up together here – we should continue growing together – we are stronger together.
Disadvantaged groups / those less likely to be engaged
There are still a lot of people who don’t access the outdoors and find it difficult to do so. And projects to help mitigate this are often shouted down for quite spurious reasons, resting on Sandford. One of the targets for the rage of the TGO article was a proposed trail around Derwentwater: “A multi-user trail would almost certainly mean extensive stretches of boardwalk or surfaced path, which would spoil the delicate beauty of Derwent Water for ever. I believe this is a thoroughly bad idea, and I find it depressing that the NPA should even consider it.”
Am I really alone in thinking this trail sounds like it could be a great idea? A low level trail, starting from a hub location like Keswick could be a great way of getting more people out and experiencing the outdoors. It could help inspire children. Provide an option for the less able. Maybe there could be clashes that need Sandford to intervene (for example if it passed a sensitive habitat site). But writing it off as something the Park Authority shouldn’t even contemplate is simply incorrect. The idea is perfectly in line with their statutory duties.
Activities still working towards better access
After well over 100 years of campaigning effort, in the early 2000s walkers, climbers and others final got (something close to) the access rights they had always believed was a natural right.*** Its often very overlooked that other activities are still campaigning for recognition of their rights to access the outdoors. As a canoeist I’ve posted about this a lot. And when I worked in the Access & Enviroment team (dual purposes…!) at British Canoeing I often heard the Sandford Principle quoted as a reason for keeping canoeists away from anywhere wet. Again, the crunch is that the allegations were never carefully tested and evidenced examples of the harm canoeing would do. There was rarely any suggestion of working with canoeing to mitigate any impact. Instead Sandford was used as an easy way of winning a debate – “you can’t let canoeists on River X because it might have some effect on the environment, so Sandford says you must block it”. (This letter from National Parks Wales to one of the Welsh consultations give a strong rebuttal on this, and touches on several other of the issues raised in this post.)
It very often seems that Sandford is almost a front for some of the concerns raised, which often have strong whiffs of snobbery. These are schemes which might let the riff-raff in. There’s already access, if only you could do it properly, like me. There’s no need for any new methods of engaging and encouraging more people to come and appreciate our wild areas. These are exactly the arguments that will alienate people – and when people can’t share something, they care less about it. We need to do the exact opposite.
Access advocates support Sandford
The recent consultation in Wales proposed a great deal of change for the outdoors and the rural environment, proposing improving access rights. It also proposed creating a third legal purpose for National Parks to promote economic development. While strongly advocating for the access changes that the consultation was proposing, outdoor organisations equally strongly campaigned against these changes – see these articles from the BMC and Open Spaces Society especially.
Recreational users of the outdoors generally do so because of a love for the environments they visit. Often this passion was created through being outdoors in the first place. We all recognise the need for our activities to avoid harm. As a canoeist, a walker and a cyclist I regularly make careful decisions about where and when to go for exactly these reasons.
The Sandford Principle, when used correctly, is a great way of ensuring strong promotion of both conservation and access together, working to create a stronger, more sustainable future for all our protected landscapes. As Lord Greenway stated in a House of Lords debate: “As we all know, the “Sandford principle” has been accepted as a reasonable approach to the management of national parks and equivalent areas. It has been generally accepted by the recreational interests since it becomes relevant only when there is an acute conflict.” It is intended to act as, “a principle of last resort that only applies in cases of irreconcilable conflict when an integrated approach to management has failed” (source).
Personally, my issue isn’t at all with careful consideration of Sandford as part of the planning and development of any new initiative within National Parks. My issue is with the tendency to use Sandford to campaign against any activity before the full facts are known and before the change to engage fully to see if and how any specific initiative might go ahead.
There is space for all of us to get out and enjoy the outdoors our own way. In fact, all the better if we do – it’ll help spread the load. Misrepresenting issues like the Sandford Principle will only serve to drive a wedge between people, making them defensive of their own interests and hostile to those of others. And now, more than ever, the environment needs us all pulling in the same direction.
* I say that purpose is fairly clear, but can cause some pretty big clashes – see, for example, the debate on hill farming vs rewilding or on driven grouse shooting vs, well, pretty much everyone else.
** The law doesn’t use the word irrevocable. But this is what Sandford is interpreted as, and you see it time and time again in guidance. Official guidance issue by DEFRA stated: “The statutory duties […] state that, “in exercising or performing any functions in relation to, or so as to affect, land” in these areas, relevant authorities “shall have regard” to their purposes [note: no specification of priority]. In National Parks, if it appears there is an irreconcilable conflict between the Park’s two purposes then greater weight should be attached to the conservation purpose (the “Sandford principle”). Lets labour the point – you can also see this here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here.
*** This is a slight aside, but I believe Public Rights (like Public Footpaths, Bridleways, Access Land) trump the legislation that enshrined the Sandford Principle. You cannot use the Sandford Principle to close a Public Footpath for example, however strong your case. I’m not saying I agree that should be the case, just that I think it is the case.