At the end of July we took the caravan to Brecon for a week to revisit some old haunts and catch up with old friends. Now I have to admit to having changed my opinion of caravans over the past couple of years. Whereas my views previously verged on the Clarksonesque, I do have to admit that our little tin box on wheels offers many advantages over our previous portable holiday accommodation of choice, the trailer tent. For a start the bed is a lot more comfortable, especially on this trip as, following an unfortunate incident where one of the cats got locked in the caravan a few days before we left home, the tin box’s sofa/bed cushions were unusable so we took the mattress off our bed instead. The other great improvement is that, instead of spending the best part of an hour wrestling with poles and canvas, usually in a howling gale or driving rain, arriving on site involves driving in, unhitching the caravan from the car, winding down the four legs and putting the kettle on. Caravanning is not sexy, it’s not cool and it’s not glamorous but then neither am I and, what is more, I have got to an age where comfort is becoming an increasingly appealing alternative to all the above.
The main aim of this trip was to catch up with old friends and that started with our choice of base for the week. In 2004, when I first started work at the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, I lived for two months in a cottage at Brynich Caravan Park .I had been getting increasingly desperate in my search for somewhere to live between starting work and buying our own place once the family moved down to join me and enquired about pitching tent on the site for two or three months over the summer. Fortunately, they had a vacant staff cottage, which the owner, Colin Jones, kindly offered to me at the same rent per month as I would have had to pay for a week at holiday cottage prices. I shall always be grateful to Colin for this act of generosity and the month that we spent with six of us crammed into the tiny three-bedroom house remains a cherished family memory. Colin and family have since sold the caravan site to the Caravan Club and, as a week at Members’ rates plus the membership was cheaper than staying at non-Members’ prices, we signed on the dotted line.
We have stayed on a Caravan Club site in the past so knew what to expect: high standards of cleanliness and presentation, a list of rules as long as your arm and an atmosphere of suburbia transplanted to the Welsh countryside, right down to net curtains, chintzy ornaments and people not speaking to their neighbours. Never mind; we had picked the site for its convenient access to Brecon, which is pleasant mile or so’s stroll down the towpath of the Brecon & Monmouth Canal, rather than for its ambience. However,we did find it a bit strange when we were sitting out on evening enjoying a late supper and a glass of wine and suddenly felt strangely alone. Despite it being a balmy July evening in a beautiful spot, it seemed that everyone else had scuttled back inside their tin boxes, drawn the curtains and were busy catching up with Coronation Street. I half expected the Camp Commandant or one of his lackeys to appear and take us to task for deviant behaviour but thankfully we got away with it.
On the Monday evening we caught up with some friends and former colleagues from the National Park Authority for a drink after work at the extensively refurbished Castle of Brecon Hotel. I have many fond memories of Brecon, having lived and worked there for total of over five years in two instalments, but tropically warm evenings are not one of them. Sitting outside in the evening sunshine, it was good to catch up and share stories but rather depressing to hear of the constant cuts to services and the struggle for funding in the world of National Parks. National Park Authorities in the UK have two statutory purposes under the 1996 Environment Act: to conserve and enhance the special qualities of the Park and to promote opportunities for people to understand and enjoy those special qualities. Unfortunately, they are constituted as miniature local authorities and spend a huge proportion of their modest budgets on running Planning Departments to enforce the conservation of what are perceived to be the special qualities only without the staffing and resources to do this efficiently and without the Members of the National Park Authority having the democratic mandate to do it in a way that is accountable to local residents. As government cutbacks lead to even fewer resources being made available to National Park Authorities, they cling to these planning powers and commit an ever-greater percentage of the available funding to shoring up an unsustainable situation. There is no reason at all to my mind why, having written the Development Plan and the National Park Management Plan, the business of operating the Development Control system that is at heart a mechanistic process of comparing any planning application to the Plan and then making a decision on whether or not to grant planning permission, could not be put in the hands of the County and District councils within whose areas the National Park is located. This would mean that planning applications are processed by a larger Planning Department that has the resources and economies of scale to do so more efficiently than a tiny National Park Authority Planning Department where one member of staff going off sick is enough to cause disruption and backlogs and decided upon by a Planning Committee made up of councillors elected by the inhabitants of the local area rather than one that consists of nominees and appointees without that accountability.
Bearing in mind this obsession within National Park Authorities about planning and the fact that designation as a National Park is the highest form of legal protection that can be afforded to an area of landscape in the UK, it is more than somewhat ironic that decisions concerning major infrastructure projects, the things that can cause the greatest damage to these precious areas and which National Park status ought to protect them against, are taken away from the remit of National Park Authorities and placed within the gift of central government. Hence the decision in 2006 to route a gas pipeline through the Brecon Beacons National Park in the face of local opposition and the recent announcement by the Government that fracking for shale gas could potentially be permitted in National Parks to add to the presence of a nuclear power station in Snowdonia and a cement works in the Peak District.