Reopening Yorkshire Dales National Park facilities during the lockdown helped to avoid job losses, meeting told

File pic. A field barn in Muker within the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Photo: Mat Robinson Photography - www.matrobinsonphoto.co.uk

The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA) has benefitted from reopening its sources of income early during the lockdown with other national parks which stayed shut now having to make redundancies, a meeting heard this week.

And YDNPA bosses say the authority could benefit from another Covid-19 lockdown which they believe could lead to an unseasonal surge in visitors.

However, a meeting of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s finance committee examining the impact of the pandemic also heard it would face significant extra costs associated with running services on a long-term basis from the homes of its members of staff.

Members heard the positive outlook was partly due to the national park moving “very early” to reopen some of its main income sources as crowds of visitors, many of whom had not previously visited the 2,179sq km protected area, turned out as travel restrictions were eased.

The authority’s long-serving chief executive, David Butterworth said a meeting with his counterparts from England’s nine other national parks earlier this week had revealed the situation elsewhere was “very different” and that the neighbouring Lake District authority was facing having to lay off about 30 staff.

He said: “Some are in a lot financial difficulty as a consequence of what happened in recent months and some of the decisions that have been taken in those organisations.

“The Dales National Park Authority is not in that position and is not expecting to face those financial difficulties in this year.”

He added: “If lockdown restrictions become more acute and those don’t apply to the outdoors, some of the visitor numbers that we would ordinarily expect through the shoulder months of autumn and winter could be considerably higher than we have seen in the past.

“So we’ll have that issue of visitor management, but there’ll also be additional income coming in because of that. So we don’t think there’s going to be a downside, certainly in relation to the measures that are being discussed so far, financially to the national park authority.”

The meeting was told the authority was continuing to seek external funding wherever possible to deliver its priorities. Last Thursday the authority signed off a joint bid with Cycling UK to the government’s Green Rural Challenge Fund to promote family-friendly cycling in the national park.

Nevertheless, Mr Butterworth said considerable uncertainty surrounded how much funding national parks could expect from the government in the coming years and so the authority and the North York Moors National Park Authority were pressing Chancellor Rishi Sunak for a meeting, but had not managed to secure one.

The meeting was told with a forecast £350,000 of extra income for the year and “no emerging risk of a financial shortfall” the authority would look at where it could reinstate some of the planned work, such as conserving rights of way, which were cut in May.

When asked about the implications of more staff working from home due to social distancing, Mr Butterworth said it was vital the quality of services offered to the public did not decrease as a result.

He said: “The sticking plaster that we had in place over recent months is not sufficient in how we go forward with future services. So we will be saying to some people you have to come back into the office.”

Mr Butterworth said if the body expected staff to work from home, then the costs and the liabilities on the authority, such as providing equipment and a working environment, were potentially significant.

He added: “Working from home creates more mental health problems than working in an office. There’s no debate around that and of course it does depend on individuals, but generally speaking that is more problematic.

“The levels of support that we would have to put in for people would have to be much higher than they are at the moment.

“I cannot see a way in which are going to return to the March 2020 position in relation to how we are operating as authority, but it is not a done deal. I can’t 90 per cent of staff working from home in the future either.”