AN historic public inquiry has opened today to hear whether two local national parks should be made larger for the first time in over 60 years.

The hearing at The Castle Green Hotel in Kendal is scheduled to last two weeks.

Led by a government-appointed planning inspector, Roy Foster,  he will report back to the Secretary of State, and an official decision is expected in autumn.

Natural England - the government advisor on the natural environment - wants to bring national park status and protection to a number of areas 'omitted' from the original maps.

It would mean the current boundaries of the Lake District National Park Authority in Cumbria, and the Yorkshire Dales National Authority being extended in four areas, to include certain fells, landscapes and commons, as well as communities.

As a result, certain responsibilities - such as development control and recreation, would also pass to the two park authorities from local councils.

But opponents say national park status will impose more bureaucracy, regulation and tighter planning controls on residents, farmers and rural businesses.

Under the proposals, places like Brigsteer, the vast section of farmland across the Lyth Valley out from Levens, and an area around Sizergh Castle would all become part of the LDNPA.

Others areas to get park status would include Tebay, Orton, Gaisgill, Ravenstonedale, Nateby and Crosby Ravensworth, among others.

Further places like Leck, Ireby, Killington, Middleton, Mansergh, Casterton, Cowan Bridge, would also become part of the national park.

Over 3,000 representations have been made by residents, organisations, walkers, farmers, landowners and other bodies.

The Council for the Protection of Rural England says 90 per cent are supportive.

But organisations like The National Farmers' Union were represented at the inquiry and are following proceedings closely.

NFU North West Regional Director Robert Sheasby said: “Having participated in many meetings about this issue with NFU members, their position is clear.

'They do not wish to see the National Park extended because they believe farming within the boundaries of a National Park will have adverse effects for their businesses.

'Farmers are concerned about the ability of the road network to cope with increased traffic and another layer of bureaucracy with regards to planning which may prevent them from building the new modern structures needed by many farm enterprises to produce more from less.

'Farmers also feel that thanks to their land management skills, the Howgills and Upper Eden Valley are already areas of outstanding beauty and they fail to see how being within the National Park will enhance that offering.'

The Kendal-based Friends of the Lake District charity support the proposed extensions and are leading a group of pro campaigners.

They include the National Trust, the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England and the Open Spaces Society, among others.

Jack Ellerby, policy officer for FoTLD said: 'We hope that ministers will act swiftly to ensure that these beautiful landscapes are granted the national park status they so richly deserve.'

Objectors which helped force the inquiry and a closer examination of the proposals, include local planning authorities Cumbria County Council and Eden District Council.

On the opening day, Richard Honey, counsel for Natural England, led the inspector through an 18-page opening statement.

He pointed out that national park status could also benefit communities by getting help for certain projects, as well as developing recreation opportunities like cycling to help the rural economy.

Mr Honey said: ‘There is a perception that being in a National Park leads to additional and burdensome red tape.

'However, Natural England understands that Defra’s Better Regulation Team considers that it would not impose any new burden on business or widen the expansion of regulatory activity’.

Previously, Eric Robson, Chairman of Cumbria Tourism has described the issue as ‘one of the great bits of unfinished business in the British countryside’.

Cumbria County Council's chief representative Dr Richard Newman, has challenged the inclusion of some areas and questioned whether they meet the precise criteria required to have national park status.