Some local authorities appear to be stepping out of line with central government policy by refusing to open their areas up to visitors from elsewhere, putting them on a potential collision course with Whitehall.
From Wednesday, people in England could drive to outdoor spaces, irrespective of distance, as part of the government’s relaxation of lockdown measures.
But some of those local authorities home to areas of natural beauty, including Cumbria and North Yorkshire, are keeping public facilities closed and actively discouraging visitors this weekend.
The Local Government Association warned in a paper going before its executive committee today that national messaging around social distancing “needs to remain consistent so that councils can deliver effective local services in line with current resourcing pressures”.
“Public expectations on councils is extremely high, and councils do not have adequate resources to help the police enforce lockdown measures,” it said. “This is likely to become a bigger issue as some local organisations are starting to blur the lines.”
Cumbria has been one of the worst affected parts of the UK by Covid-19 with the sixth highest number of deaths relative to its population. Cumbria CC leader Stewart Young (Lab) told LGC the “ambiguity” in the government guidance was “a complete mess”.
Assistant Chief Constable Andrew Slattery, chair of Cumbria’s Local Resilience Forum, has told the public not to visit the Lake District and Cllr Young told LGC he feared it was “not a sustainable position” to “have the police contradicting the position of the government”.
“The government’s shifting of the rules without any prior consultation has just put everybody in a really difficult position,” he said.
“Our bars, restaurants, cafes and public toilets are closed, so the infrastructure is not in place to support an influx.
“People will follow rules if they think they make sense but these new rules don’t make any sense.
“There is a sense underlying this that [the government] have lost all credibility and people are stopping following the rules, and then you get all sorts of problems. The big worry now is that we end up with a second wave.”
Blackburn with Darwen BC director of public health Dominic Harrison told LGC that allowing people to travel unlimited distances for physical activity was “dangerous”.
“This will take the infection from high infection areas to low infection areas, particularly rural areas and seaside resorts,” he said. “They should rescind that element of the advice and show us the evidence on which that makes sense.”
The County Councils Network says that more than 21 county authorities (58%) closed their country parks either to visitors using cars, or completely during the lockdown with “many” now reopening.
But county leaders say they may have no choice to but to begin shutting country parks if they become too busy and the numbers pose a risk to social distancing guidelines. They also warn that there could be additional costs of littering incurred by taxpayers, as many cafes and toilets will remain closed in re-opened parks and other coastal tourist spots.
North Yorkshire CC is also keeping some toilets and car parks closed to deter visitors.
The county council’s executive member for access, Don Mackenzie (Con) said: “Too many people have made too many sacrifices for us to lose sight of the risks with this virus”. He said the council was temporarily closing its large on-street parking facilities in Whitby, as well as restricting parking on some roads and to provide more space for pedestrians to apply the social distancing guidelines.
“Throughout the weekend we will monitor the number of pedestrians and we may have to close more roads to protect the public as best we can,” he said.
In a briefing to residents North Yorkshire chief executive Richard Flinton, said: “Why not do the right thing and protect yourself and your family by staying close to home. Everything will still be here when it’s safe to welcome you back.”
Scarborough BC is also keeping its car parks and toilets closed.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government said:
“Spending time outdoors, exercising or just enjoying the countryside is essential for our physical health and wellbeing and we strongly encourage councils to do everything they can to help people benefit from such activity in line with public health guidance.
“We’re grateful for the work of councils who have ensured that most parks across England are now open and we’re continuing to work closely with them.”