Statement on changes to National Park Centres
The following statement is made in relation to the paper that has been published for consideration of Exmoor National Park Authority Members on the 7 November 2023 (Item 9), with a series of recommendations in relation to changes to our National Park Centre service:
These recommendations have now been passed and the FAQ's below updated to reflect this.
The recommendations were not made lightly, they are based purely on our financial situation and in no way reflect the significant contribution that our centres, and the commitment of our staff, make to the delivery of our work.
We are mindful of strong feelings surrounding relocation of the Dulverton National Park Centre to our Exmoor House building, but invite residents, local businesses and partnerships to work with us, to support transition in the best way possible for all.
Now a decision has been made, greater consideration can be made to the future use of the space it currently occupies. A number of options are available, to be explored.
National Parks exist to not only look after our most precious landscapes, but to help people enjoy and understand them. Our National Park Centres play a pivotal role in this. But with a significant reduction in the Authority’s spending power, because of reduced and flatlined core funding and increasing costs, we have had to look at making significant savings.
The recommendations passed by Members of the Authority seek to reduce the net costs of our Centres, while maintaining a service for as many people as possible.
Crucially, the plans will maintain a presence in our current three locations at Dulverton, Dunster and Lynmouth and provide 12+ months to transition.
Frequently Asked Questions
The following FAQs have been prepared in response to interest, since the paper was published, particularly around the relocation (not closure, contrary to some posts) of Dulverton National Park Centre (NPC) from its current position at 7-9 fore Street, to Exmoor House.
Unfortunately, we are not the only National Park having to review provision of services, including National Park Centres / visitor Centres. For example the Peak District (reputed to be Europe’s busiest National Park) has 4 Centres and were set to close them all – they are currently saved for a 3 year period thanks a to a mystery benefactor funding their net operating costs for this period – BBC News story.
Is ENPA bankrupt?
No. However action is needed now to sustain the organisation going forward and avoid a more critical situation in the future.
Our real terms funding has been significantly reduced alongside growing inflation. In 2010 our core Government funding was £4.1m, and this financial year it is just £3.2m. When you add in the significant costs increases incurred over that same period the real terms spending power has been substantially reduced (the 2010 £4.1m Government grant funding would equate to £6.1m based on CPI inflation by September 2023) and so we must review what we can deliver to best achieve our statutory National Park purposes.
Why is it only National Park Centre’s facing the cuts?
National Park Centres are not the only service being reviewed. As an organisation we are having to take a series of steps to reduce our forecast funding gap. This is an ongoing process. Significant changes have already been made to our Rights of Way work saving c. £130k per annum. Several vacancies have been held, and some assets (land) put up for sale. A business review is being undertaken looking at all service areas, with targets for each for efficiencies or savings to be made by reducing expenditure and or increasing income. Staffing is a matter for the Chief Executive to determine, while the decision to alter our National Park Centre service is one for Members to determine as a change of policy. At the same meeting there was a paper considering options to achieve savings within our governance costs.
Is the service failing?
No. User numbers have recovered well since the pandemic and spend is at an all-time high. Performance compares favourably to other National Park's and industry benchmarks.
However, the retail elements are designed to support our core public information and visitor experience role and this still has a net cost of approximately £160k per annum across the 3 Centres; the Authority is unable to sustain such costs going forward in the current financial climate. While retail income has increased, the benefit of this has been offset by significantly increased costs such as utilities and staffing.
We are proud to have reached the finals of the Bath Bristol and Somerset Tourism Awards and we hope to continue an award-winning service in a new location.
Why has there been no community consultation?
Approx. 12 months ago we shared very publicly with the press and partners our financial challenges. In this we referred to the need to consider closing National Park Centres. Until now there have been no firm plans and the paper is seeking the views of our Members in the first instance. It has also been important to engage with those staff most directly affected too. During the last 12 months we have been open about our need to explore all potential savings and have updated our public Authority meetings as well as meetings of the Exmoor Parish and Consultative Forum on a regular basis. We now have 12-18 months to work on transition plans for the Centres with our partners.
What about the Dulverton Heritage Centre?
This is a separate organisation and the element of the building they are in is under separate ownership.
What about the library?
ENPA and Somerset Council share the building. It was first purchased by the former Somerset Council when they hosted the National Park Authority. When the Authority became a freestanding Authority ownership was transferred, but Somerset Council retain a share and would be entitled to a proportion of the sale fee if sold. Until such a time they retain the right to use a percentage and can continue to use this as they wish. We are not aware of any immediate changes to the library.
Currently we provide access to the library on days they would usually be closed. This is an informal arrangement and not something we are paid to do, and this would end if we relocated. We are not in a position to make a decision that incurs us costs, to support a function that is the statutory responsibility of another Authority.
What will happen to the building?
Once a decision is made about the future of the Centre greater consideration can be made to the future use of the space currently occupied by the Centre. A number of options are available to be explored by the Authority’s Land and Property team. The proposed timetable provides 15-18months to transition and develop proposals.
Is it worth it for a relatively small saving?
While the annual saving associated with relocating Dulverton NPC (just under £30k per annum) may seem small to some, it is not insignificant within the financial challenges faced by the Authority. Doing nothing is not an option and real savings need to be achieved as the Authority has a legal obligation to produce a balanced budget.
Will people use a centre in Exmoor House?
The way that people access visitor information has changed, and over the years the role of National Park Centres has evolved. While public information is still our primary focus we are responding less to ad hoc enquires for local information (which is more readily available online to many users), and instead we have sought to develop the Centre’s as mini destinations in their own right – offering inspiration to users of the National Park and an opportunity to engage them in the special qualities and responsible use of the area through our interpretation and interactives, in addition to our bespoke information through a staff presence.
We feel a relocation can work, and is a positive alternative to having to withdraw the service. Exmoor House is within approx. 100m of the current location and already receives a number of enquiries from members of the public (who are currently redirected to the National Park Centre). It is located opposite one of the main car parks used by visitors and those using mobile navigation are often directed to Exmoor House in the first instance when searching for Exmoor/Exmoor National Park. While we appreciate not everyone will support the proposal to relocate, should this happen, we hope that we can collaborate with the community to ensure a successful transition is made.
How do we continue to engage visitors if the relocated service is seasonal?
In the last financial year, over 80 per cent of Centre users visited the Centre between April and October. With the need to reduce funding we are targeting our finite resource where it is most effective.
Is this about withdrawing a Centre in Dulverton altogether? What about closing other Centres?
No. The proposal to relocate has been developed, by the team responsible for Centres, as a practical alternative to withdrawing from any location altogether. Currently Dulverton costs us the most per engagement. At the other locations (Dunster and Lynmouth) we have no opportunity to relocate into other ENPA owned assets and repurposing of these buildings of the current Centres at Dunster and Lynmouth will be hard to achieve due to legal restrictions. We are looking at changes to the remaining Centres – Dunster is already seasonal and winter hours will be reduced at Lynmouth as part of these plans, but again we are having to target finite resources where they will have the most impact achieving the statutory purposes of the National Park Authority.
Can't funds earmarked for the new bridge at Great Bradley be used to support the Centres?
No revenue funding is being used for the Great Bradley Bridge project. Instead, we are using CareMoor donations given specifically for the bridge and/or access enhancements, as well as grants sought specifically for this work. This is a one-off capital investment, to secure a number of popular walking and riding routes, including the Two Moors Way. It will also provide significant conservation benefits to a fragile wet woodland ecosystem.
The savings identified for the National Park Centres reflect our need to reduce our annual revenue costs.
Published: 6 November 2023
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