Northumberland National Park boss: ‘We need to do more for the climate’

Walkers, ramblers and sheep farmers can breath a sign of relief – wolves and lynxes are unlikely to prowl the hills and fells of Northumberland National Park anytime soon.
Tony Gates, chief executive of Northumberland National Park Authority.Tony Gates, chief executive of Northumberland National Park Authority.
Tony Gates, chief executive of Northumberland National Park Authority.

While the thought of returning big mammals with sharp teeth to Britain remains the dream of some, Tony Gates, the park’s top boss, has other ideas.

Over roughly 15 years as chief executive, the Northern Irishman has seen the environment swing in and out of the national agenda, but is quietly confident it is back among the public’s top priorities.

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“Species reintroduction is something that’s already happening – think of the water vole, in Kielder,” he said, speaking at the national park’s flagship base at the Sill: National Landscape Discovery Centre, just a few miles from the Northumberland-Cumbria border.

The Sill, Northumberland National Park.The Sill, Northumberland National Park.
The Sill, Northumberland National Park.

“But I think top-level predators are a long way off yet. Now it’s about moving in the right direction and bringing everyone with us, because no land management change will be sustained unless everyone has bought into it and can see the benefits of it.

“I’m very clear, we need to do more for nature, we need to do more for the climate and the people who can do that are the people who manage land already.”

While stewardship of the land might sound an obvious part of the job description for a national park boss, the financial crisis which rocked the world economy from 2008 saw many ambitions curtailed.

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The first electric vehicle charging points were installed in the national park more than a decade ago, but there’s been little progress since.

“When the financial crisis really began to be felt from 2010 to 2016, a lot of organisations were inward-looking,” Gates said, adding many organisations went into “survival mode” as a result.

“For years, we’ve valued our activity on gross domestic product (GDP), on economic activity, the values of goods and services, jobs created and people in employment.

“That’s how the world economic model is set and it’s fair to say that when times are hard, the environment can sometimes be viewed as almost a luxury or a ‘nice to have’.

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“I think we’ve moved on now, where the environment is recognised as what it is – it’s a bottom line for the health and well-being of humans and the health and well-being of world economies.”

Naturally, the coronavirus pandemic has also brought challenges. Social distancing restrictions forced the closure of the Sill, the £14.8million tourism centre which opened in 2017.

But this summer also saw visitor numbers approaching levels approaching levels not seen since the 1970s.

But despite its booming popularity, Gates, is aware he needs people to live in the national park – not just visit.

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Occupying what he calls the “most remote 20%” of Northumberland, the park’s 405 sq miles is home to less than 2,000 people, while a fifth of its properties are second homes.

But he insists he remains committed to enticing more families back to ensure it remains a “living, working national park”.

He added: “We’ve got to find ways to deliver action on climate and enhancing habitats and biodiversity, but doing it in a way that keeps people employed and supports communities and rural areas.

“The reason people visit Northumberland is because of our rich heritage and our scenic beauty.”

James Harrison, Local Democracy Reporting Service