Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 December 2014

Attwood dithering brings us nothing but park strife

Northern Ireland is the only region in the British Isles without a national park of its own. That is a crying shame, says Anna Lo

Northern Ireland's environment has some truly outstanding areas, such as the Giant's Causeway, the Mournes and Strangford Lough. However, one thing that we lack is a national park.

Unfortunately, it now appears that the Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, has admitted defeat in attempting to establish a national park in the Mournes.

He has used the phrase that the proposal is now in a "take stock phase", which means it has been put on the shelf.

A national park would give a boost to tourist-driven economies in the area, such as hotels, restaurants and shops that sell local produce and souvenirs.

While I acknowledge that this idea is not without controversy, I do believe that it would bring major benefits to our environment and increase the prestige of one of our areas of beauty.

I know that there is opposition from some farmers in the Mournes to having a national park - I talked to a number of them at the recent Balmoral show - but this location was by no means the only area that could have had a national park. Areas such as the Sperrins, the Giant's Causeway, the Fermanagh Lakes and Strangford Lough could easily have been chosen.

I am disappointed that the minister has not attempted to show vision by exploring other options.

His department has mismanaged the handling of this debate. We should be talking to people on the ground, to answer their questions and dispel any myths around the consequences of a national park.

In England and Scotland, they had an extensive consultation process when they were introducing national parks and have a continuing communication and engagement with landowners where one was set up.

There is clearly not enough information being given to local people as to what a national park would mean for them.

It has been suggested that we should set up an independent working group to look into this matter. I would support such a move, to ensure that all matters relating to this issue are presented in a clear and concise manner, in which all stakeholders are involved.

This is just the latest in a series of backtracks that the environment minister has made in recent months.

When he took office last May, I was very heartened by the comments he made in his first couple of weeks in the job.

I hoped that we would finally have an environment minister who would want to make radical reforms. One of his predecessors, after all, was Sammy Wilson, who was not the most dedicated supporter of the environment, to put it kindly.

In spite of the fact that the minister promised us heaven and earth, he has fallen short of delivering these promises. It is not just the national park that is dead in the water, but the new marine legislation that has been watered down.

When you look at the rest of the UK, the names of their national parks are easily recognisable, such as Lough Lomond, Snowdonia and the Lake District.

I think it is a crying shame that Northern Ireland does not have its own national park. The Republic has several, including the Wicklow Mountains and Connemara. This means that Northern Ireland is the only region in these islands that does not have a national park.

That is not to say that we should have a national park just because we do not have one. We should have a better process in place to find out what type of national park the public wants.

It would clearly bring a tourist boost and help create prestige for the area. A national park would help protect the environment and natural heritage.

It is time the Department of the Environment changed its attitude to the shape of this debate, otherwise we may lose the opportunity to have a national park for a generation.

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