Thank you for the invitation to join you at your national conference. A conference which brings together the National Parks, policy makers and all those who care about the landscapes, communities and wildlife they support.
The role of National Parks within our society cannot be overstated. Over 50 per cent of people in England live within one hour of a National Park. They attract over 90 million visitors a year. A quarter of the land they cover is designated as a SSSI. These are the landscapes that inspired Turner and Wordsworth and that continue to inspire today.
Landscapes are not only beautiful and historic parts of our countryside. They are integral to tourism, to the economy, to well being and to health. That’s why, as Defra Secretary, it’s a privilege to be responsible for England’s Protected Landscapes.
I have four key priorities for Defra. These are to boost the rural economy, improve the environment and safeguard animal and plant health. Economic growth and environmental improvement are not mutually exclusive. They are completely interdependent.
A high quality, living and working countryside creates huge economic and environmental benefits for the country.
In addition to their role in safeguarding some of our most iconic landscapes, National Parks make a huge contribution to the rural economy. A recent study revealed that the English National Parks contribute more than £10.4 billion to the economy through the economic activity in their boundaries. This is equivalent to the UK aerospace industry. That is 140,000 people employed in 22,500 businesses.
With these opportunities come challenges. When this Government came to power we had to take tough decisions on public expenditure. I’m grateful for the part the UK National Parks have played in achieving this.
Significant savings have been made and I would like to pay particular tribute to the way in which you have reduced operating costs while upholding the high quality of environmental protection and promotion of attractions that the Parks are justly famous for.
Volunteers have a key role to play in this and I would like to thank those people who, in England alone, put in over 43,000 work days a year, valued at £3.2 million. To place our Parks on a firm footing for the future, we will continue to work with you to identify and take advantage of new external funding opportunities.
I have seen for myself the work many of the National Parks are undertaking with rural apprentices, nurturing local talent.
This morning I met a number of participants of the apprenticeship scheme operated by the North York Moors National Park. I was inspired by their knowledge and dedication.
This project, with support from the Prince’s Countryside Fund, has included work on small scale flood prevention schemes and enhanced the skills base for future generations of upland farmers. I also saw how graduates from the scheme have used their experience to secure employment.
I know that Richard Benyon, our Environment Minister, was equally impressed by the breadth of projects and work he saw in the Northumberland National Park, when he visited to launch the ‘Love Your National Parks’ celebration in June. National Park Authorities are uniquely placed to be the voice and champions for their areas and you are doing just that.
There are many opportunities for National Parks to seize upon. One of these is the opportunity to capitalise on and increase the 110 million people who visit the UK’s National Parks every year.
Tourism is important because it provides people with new experiences. It enables people to appreciate and put a value on wildlife and wild places. Tourism also helps grow the economy. Tourists spend money in our National Parks and this supports 68,000 jobs. But also when tourists return home they are more likely to buy the products we export. Great clothing, great food and great drink.
However, recent research shows that potential visitors from many of our overseas tourism markets do not yet recognise the beauty of the British countryside. To realise our full potential in this area I am delighted to support the Countryside is GREAT campaign. I am pleased that the National Parks have agreed to participate in this and lead from the front.
In showcasing the greatest of the GREAT, the National Parks will be joined by a growing number of our other countryside partners – the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the National Trust and the Canals and Rivers Trust.
To enable more businesses to thrive, Defra and its delivery agencies are taking action. We are putting in place the foundations a vibrant and sustainable rural economy needs. We are working to reduce the unnecessary burdens that hold back rural business, not least our farmers. I see my role as getting out of people’s hair.
We also want to make UK food and farming more competitive, putting it in pole position to take advantage of the growing global demand for high quality and easily traceable UK food.
Only on Monday I was in Brussels, where we have been seeking to secure a reformed CAP that meets the needs of farmers and the environment.
We want to make sure we balance the burdens on farmers, other businesses and on our delivery bodies, as well as ensuring value for money for tax payers.
We will work with you on the design of the next rural development programme to ensure it continues to secure beneficial outcomes for our countryside and the communities it supports.
We recognise that the uplands face particular challenges and that there is a specific role for taxpayers’ money in compensating farmers for the work they do in enhancing the environment and providing public goods for which there is no market mechanism.
I have asked my officials to look at how we might ensure that hill farmers are able to be more economically secure, continue to contribute to food production and remain custodians of our valuable uplands. Wherever I go, I remind people that if it weren’t for the Herdwick sheep and the people who look after them we wouldn’t have the Lake District we do today.
I can’t imagine the 15 million visitors who visit the area a year being quite so keen to clamber through the gorse, bracken and briars that would soon reappear if it weren’t for farmers and their livestock keeping them at bay.
For too long we have allowed the lazy assumption that the environment and growth are incompatible objectives within the planning system. I believe that, with a bit of innovative thinking, in many cases it is possible to have both.
This is why I am particularly interested in Biodiversity Offsetting.
Offsetting gives us a chance to improve the way our planning system works. It gets round the long-running conundrum of how to grow the economy at the same time as improving the environment. It could provide real opportunities in our National Parks, where the necessary extension of a farm building could result in the enhancement of an existing habitat or the creation of a new one.
To broaden this important discussion, I recently launched a consultation seeking a wide range of views on what offsetting has to contribute. I encourage all those representing English National Parks to respond, so that we can hear your views.
National Parks have a strong track record of helping the rural economy grow.
Recognising this potential, Dartmoor, the New Forest, the Peak District and the South Downs National Parks have recently seized the opportunity offered by Government, leading to a £26 million investment in cycling.
This will bring new opportunities for cycling to the millions of people who live close to National Parks. It will fund new routes, signs and improve links between key attractions and transport hubs. The result will be improved tourism, better connected communities and improved public health.
The National Parks are also helping test new ways of tackling barriers to economic growth in rural areas through the Rural Growth Network pilots. For example, in Northumberland the National Park Authority has worked closely with local councils to provide job opportunities and new rural workspaces.
I believe that nothing will have a more spectacular effect on the rural economy than the roll out of superfast broadband. For the first time, we have a technology that can truly bridge the gap between urban and rural.
That’s why Government is investing:
- £1.2 billion for superfast broadband to 90 per cent of UK premises by early 2016.
- £20 million for some communities in the most remote locations to develop their own superfast broadband solutions.
We’re also exploring with industry how to use innovative solutions to reach at least 99 per cent by 2018.
There’s also the problem of mobile reception in rural areas. I know that for many of you the current situation is beyond dire. That’s why we’re investing £150 million in the Mobile Infrastructure Project to serve up to two thirds of UK premises in mobile not spots. Access to fast and reliable broadband is crucial for rural businesses and rural communities. It will transform the way people access services, like healthcare, education and community care, enabling them to do this more efficiently and directly.
As the guardians of some of the UK’s finest landscapes, you are at the forefront of our efforts to improve the environment and grow the economy. Your work is key to sustaining the thriving landscapes which deliver huge social, economic and environmental benefits. The thriving landscapes which support some of our most fragile communities and habitats.
I believe that we can continue to make progress on all these fronts through partnership and collaboration. I would urge you to build on the excellent work done to date and to grasp the many opportunities that are on the horizon.
I hope you have a good conference and look forward to working with you to achieve this.