A DEFIANT Lake District National Park Officer has this week defended the Lake District National Park Authority's controversial recommendation to ditch its 900-strong events programme, which includes much-loved free guided walks, reports Lisa Frascarelli.

In an exclusive one-hour interview with The Westmorland Gazette, Paul Tiplady argued why his authority's decision to drop its events and refocus on attracting ethnic minorities, urban youth and disabled people was a decision of which to be proud and one that had no financial or political strings attached.

This week, in the wake of the authority's decision to defer ratifying the recommendation on the fate of the events programme until February 7, The Westmorland Gazette launches its Save the Walks campaign.

It is urging the LDNPA to rethink a recommendation which, if approved, would see: l The end of the guided walks that have introduced thousands of walkers to the Lakes.

l Spell the end of Brockhole's popular family event days.

l See the LDNPA "disinvest" from its tourist information centres.

l And could see up to a third of the authority's 300 voluntary rangers quit their jobs.

Despite a furore in the national press after the LDNPA said the park attracted only the "white, middle class and middle aged" people, Lake District National Park Officer Paul Tiplady explained exactly why the park wanted to attract a new audience at the expense of its popular events programme.

"We are not doing this because it is government dictated. We are doing this because it is right," he said. "We look at the national park and we see that a lot of people do come to the park 12 million plus. This shows a lot of interest in this landscape, but we look at the park and we see these people are of a type and that is a fact.

"The total cost of the events programme is £83,000, the walks cost £40,000 which doesn't seem a lot, but it's never been about the money as such. Lots of other people are doing similar events, ours is just a blunderbuss approach, it is not targeted. It is a nice walk out with people who are passionate about the national park but it is only attracting 4,500 people and we end up paying £8.30 for each person who attends that walk is that right, is it a good use of public funds?"

Mr Tiplady said government reviews had found National Parks were not attracting a "balanced" make-up of the English population something the authority saw as a priority and a mantle other national parks had already taken up.

"Missing from national parks were urban youth, disabled and ethnic minorities," he said. "It is not a government target but the government has said the national park has got to help people feel welcome."

He added: "The events programme is enjoyed by those on it but not many go on it and it is not achieving particular policies of the authority, it is just a good walk out. We decided to change but it is hard because we changed overnight."

This may be the opinion of Mr Tiplady but many people disagree that the LDNPA's new direction should be at the expense of a much-loved events programme.

Over the past two weeks the Gazette has been inundated with calls, letters and emails from people across the country determined to fight to keep the walks.

Ex-chairman of the LDNPA voluntary rangers Derek Tunstall warned if the walks were cut on February 7 many volunteers might resign, including himself.

"A lot of volunteers feel they have been badly treated, they feel they have not been consulted properly," he said. "I would like to see the guided walks come back, if they don't there's going to be 4,500 disappointed people. If they finish the walks a lot of people are going to leave. It has got to the point where I am even considering it myself."

Fellow volunteer Jamie Green added: "There's a lot of people that would not get on to the fells if it weren't for the guided walks. They feel safe they are with trained people and they really enjoy themselves. How is the national park going to force certain types of people to come to the Lake District?"

Janet Sedgwick, of Clitheroe, who has taken part in more than 100 voluntary walks, said: "I appreciate that the National Park may want to attract a more varied clientele, but why should everybody else suffer? The whole thing makes no sense whatsoever and I fear it is going to upset a very large number of people including myself."

However, the Black Environment Network, which has just finished a three-year project to encourage ethnic minorities to visit the countryside, has said abolishing the walks is not the way forward.

Director of BEN Judy Ling Wong said: "The best way forward is an integrated approach. It is a pity to dismantle something that is established. I think some effort could be made with volunteers and they could be part of the solution they could welcome ethnic groups, or be trained to welcome them."

Suggestions put forward by the volunteers to allow them to run the walks virtually cost free have been dubbed "worth exploring" by Mr Tiplady. He said volunteers were appreciated and gave a "wonderful gift" to the national park but ultimately it was "their choice" if they decided to leave.

"There is plenty for the volunteers to do, survey the walks, patrolling, helping to implement the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, repair work," he said. "But it is their choice if they decide to leave. Maybe these are tasks some people won't want to do."

He added that if the LDNPA committee voted to keep the events programme on February 7 the £40,000 cost would have to be cut from elsewhere in the budget.

Mr Tiplady said the authority had been inundated with calls, letters and emails from the public. He said around 100 of the correspondences had been racist and a small group were "viciously racist" which he would be handing over to the police.

Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael said: "National park author-ities are independent bodies, which make their own decisions on how they spend their budgets and how they organise their services. At the same time they are accountable to ministers who provide their funding, and they have a legal responsibility to promote opportunities for the public as a whole to enjoy the special qualities of national parks. This means all sectors of society."

He added: "The Government has a policy of inclusion, aimed at adding to the range of people who benefit from the National Parks, not at deterring or displacing those who have already discovered what these special areas have to offer. These are national assets for all to enjoy."


SHOULD the Lake District National Park Authority's events programme be scrapped?

Yes: Telephone 0901 031 2692 No: Telephone 0901 031 2691 Lines open at 12.01am today, Friday (January 7) and close at noon on Wednesday (January 12). Calls cost 25p at all times. Calls from mobile telephones and non-BT phones may cost more.