The ‘Thirlmere Activity Hub’ is a development that has raised the issue of major development within our national parks and asks questions about the future of these designated landscapes, their use and their future. 

A large-scale major development has been proposed in the stunning and tranquil valley of Thirlmere in the Lake District. A planning application submitted by TreeTop Trek would put 8 zipwires over 1km long across the width of Thirlmere, dissecting the lake. This is a test case that will determine whether the Lake District National Park Authority (LDNPA) is in the business of protecting our nationally important landscapes or warming to the idea of commercial tourist development in beautiful open countryside where it does not currently exist. 

A National Park’s protection is based on the planning laws and guidelines that it is required to abide by. National Park and World Heritage Site Status (as received by the Lake District this year) both bring a responsibility to adhere to a set of values to protect the special landscapes in these areas. 

According to landscape charity Friends of the Lake District, TreeTop Trek’s application disregards planning law and policies which are in place to afford our National Park the highest levels of protection from development. The decision of the National Park’s Planning Board on whether to recommend refusal of this planning application is guided by these policies so why is there a sense of unease amongst those opposed to this application? 

It is perhaps because the outcome of this application could have major consequences for the future of all of our National Parks.  Many view this application as a potential Trojan horse, both for further development at Thirlmere and as a green light for large-scale commercial development in all of our National Parks. 

In its written response to the Lake District National Park Authority, Friends of the Lake District is forthright in its opposition to the application. 

Laura Fiske, Planning Officer at Friends of the Lake District stated: 

“Friends of the Lake District is convinced that there is no justification for this development in this sensitive location and it should be refused. The country’s most spectacular places must remain free and open for all to appreciate and enjoy. National Parks must be managed for the interests of the many and not the few. 

Image by Rod Ireland: Young people doing Duke of Edinburgh enjoying Thirlmere

“The size and scale of this application at 39 hectares (equivalent to 28 football pitches) means that the National Park Planning Authority must treat this as a ‘Major Development’ and adhere to national and its own local policy introduced to protect the Park’s most valuable assets including the Thirlmere Valley from large-scale commercial developments. The Policy states that: 

Major Development should only take place within a national park if there are exceptional circumstances including:

  • no alternative sites for the development outside of a national park,
  • there is a proven national need that can’t be met in any other way and,
  • the development is in the public interest

“The wording is unambiguous, this application satisfies none of these requirements and on this point alone we would expect a decision to refuse this application to be made.  In addition this application is contrary to multiple other policies. For example the development creates conflict between the National Park’s purposes to conserve and enhance its natural beauty, and policy relating to development in the open countryside which states that an application must demonstrate: 

  • an essential need for a rural location,
  • or that it will help to sustain an existing business, including farm diversification schemes,
  • or that it provides for a proven and essential housing need,
  • or an appropriate reuse, redevelopment or extension of an existing building.

“In our view it demonstrates none of these. The LDNPA Core Strategy states that: 

‘We want to protect the distinctive character of the North, and conserve the integrity of the diverse patchwork of habitats, historic landscape, and character of the vernacular built environment. We want to protect visual amenity, including the skyline and views in to and out of the area.’ 

“This is surely an opportunity for the Park Authority to stand by its own policies and guidelines and to refuse this application in order to protect the landscape of the Thirlmere Valley. 

“The development also threatens to swell visitor numbers to a remote valley with little regard for another planning policy specifically designed to protect areas adjacent to Thirlmere which states that, 

‘We will support initiatives that reduce non-essential travel, especially car based visitors, over Dunmail Raise between North and Central/South East areas.’ 

“The application cites an estimated increase of 79,000 visitors in year one increasing to an additional 127,000 visitors in year two. The Transport assessment submitted with the planning application suggests that some 92% of visitors would arrive by car.

 “We are demanding that the principles and policies introduced by Parliament to protect all of our National Parks from damaging development must be upheld.” 

The Charity’s arguments suggest that the decision of the Lake District National Park Development Control Committee to refuse this application should be a foregone conclusion. 

And yet, despite the numbers objecting, public comment, vehement opposition from organisations such as the Campaign for National Parks, British Mountaineering Council and the Open Spaces Society, there is a sense of anxiety about the Park Authority’s motivation and appetite to see off this damaging large scale development. 

The fear is that if the application is approved the Lake District National Park Authority will tear up its planning policy, undermine its status as a World Heritage Site and the laws that govern not just the Lake District but all of our national parks. 

The hope is that this is the moment that the Lake District National Park makes a decision that draws a line in the sand to say that major development is not appropriate in open countryside in a National Park. If the application was permitted, it would make one wonder whether National Park, and indeed World Heritage Site status and the laws and policy which support the designations actually mean anything anymore. 

Read our full written response submitted to the Planning Authority

*Main header image by Mike Prince -