Next to the many reports and commentaries setting out problems related to national park access & transport are others suggesting how things could be (Note 1), pointing to selected case studies of places around the world. In spite of this, nothing of significance seems to change. Why?
Two things have happened in the last three years that might just unblock this. Firstly, Julian Glover pointed to locked-in inappropriate governance – i.e. how decisions are made about national park transport – as the main blocker. OK, governance might not immediately sparkle for many people, but in this context (dare I suggest?) it gets pretty interesting. Secondly, Covid led to the forced need to manage significant increases in volumes of car-based visitors (Notes 2 & 3). Looking at how these might work together is for another day (Note 4) – we’ll just focus on governance here.
Julian Glover’s 2019 review of protected landscapes for DEFRA (Note 5) puts together a case for why fundamental changes to how transport is governed in national parks would help to unlock the required transformation in how people access and travel around national parks (Note 6). He basically suggests that the priorities of the Transport Authority/ies that cover national parks do not relate to the access and transport problems, needs and opportunities that relate to and within the national parks. This is not a criticism of the transport authorities, but an acknowledgement of the differences of focus and transport-related priorities. Furthermore, the proportion of a Transport Authority’s area and population of any national park is often relatively small; the Lake District’s resident population is about 8% of that of Cumbria County Council, its Transport Authority.
What Glover did not attempt to do was to set out (i) what alternative governance arrangements might look like and (ii) what powers would be appropriate to sit within scope of different governance arrangements. With support from the Foundation for Integrated Transport, I was able to explore these ideas over the last two years. This happened at the same time as working with a few national parks to help develop more transformative visitor access and transport systems (Note 1); this emphasised the “Glover blocker” – namely the role and importance of governance.
The emphasis of transport policy is – rightly – on outcomes and desirable impacts as well as on tackling problems. An implicit point in Glover’s recommendation is that the relevant outcomes for access & transport relating to national parks – and how these are prioritised – are different to transport in other contexts; quality of visitor experience, access-for-all to protected landscapes, protection of the landscapes from the damages of transport, and nurturing local prosperity are the sorts of priorities that would shape a national park transport system in addition to outcomes related to the resident and business transport users.
Given that existing governance is a problem, what would be an optimised structure look like? Different national parks have different degrees of formalisation of partnership working that involve influence over access and transport. Common to all of these is the voluntary arrangements between partners. This limits the extent to which strategy and decisions can be made that are meaningful and enduring in terms of effectiveness and scale that would deliver on the national park-focused priorities. These arrangements, coupled with limited funding and capacity more generally, probably explain the stasis and limits in national park transport development and the frustration of otherwise well-meaning ambition.
I would suggest that a formal Transport Partnership (NPTP) would be the best way of tackling access & transport problems and delivering on outcomes relevant to national parks that gets over the limits of voluntary partnerships. This would mean the NPA and transport authority/ies being part of a formalised body that has decision making powers similar to that of existing Transport Authorities. It would be similar to the Combined Authority model – where appropriate officer capacity is found – and a Transport Partnership member group is created – from the partner organisations with additional capacity and expertise included as appropriate. For a national park in England, this body would have its own Local Transport Plan and Bus Service Improvement Plan with associated core funding, and be able to access other relevant funding from the Department for Transport.
Depending on geography, it might be appropriate for the NPTP to create meaningful links to any local metropolitan Combined Authority. This could help guide NPTP combined authority working, provide links to expertise in more progressive mobility, as well as meaningful links to and coordination with local urban areas that are a key source of visitors to the national park.
What powers and abilities?
Appropriate powers or abilities for NPTPs include:
- Control or influence of bus services (network coverage, service levels, fares)
- Highways: access management, speed limits, highways design, abilities to create Traffic Regulation Orders and manage violations through enforcement
- Ability to integrate car parking charging via area-wide strategies across landowners and operators.
Glover suggested that National Park Authorities should be able to become Transport Authorities. The model suggested here varies from this in order to retain links between the existing Transport Authority/ies and National Park Authorities. This would be more resource efficient and retain – and ideally increase – trust between the partner authorities as well as creating conditions for complementary and mutually beneficial policy and delivery between the park and its surrounding area.
These arguments are made more fully in the accompanying report that can be found here.
Note 1: Such as this in Snowdonia: Revealed: The radical plan to tackle ‘chronic’ Snowdonia traffic chaos: The Snowdon Partnership has launched a consultation on its plans for car-free tourism in the National Park
Note 2: For instance, in the visitor surge after the first covid lockdown (August 2020), the Cairngorms NPA set up ways of managing visitor access to the popular Loch Muick
Note 3: Such as Helen Pidd’s Guardian article Tourists’ cars may be banned from most popular parts of Lake District: National park chief wants to bring in more sustainable transport to stop worsening congestion
Note 4: An initial attempt to explore these together is set out in Transport and National Parks: the Glover review through a lockdown lens
Note 5: Specifically, proposal 19 in Glover’s 2019 Landscapes review: National Parks and AONBs: Review to consider the next steps for National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) in England
Note 6: Kirkbride, A. (2019) National Parks can do for rural transport what mayors are doing for travel in cities