WEST Somerset's MP has hit out at the Exmoor National Park Authority after a report into the national park's economy was published last week.

The study undertaken by Wave Hill, an independent social and economic research firm, found that there were 60 per cent more businesses operating in Exmoor National Park than previously realised.

The survey reveals a total of nearly 1,300 businesses operating within the National Park, many of which had been previously missing from national datasets that can overlook micro-businesses and sole traders, which comprise most of business activity on Exmoor.

However the area's MP Ian Liddell-Grainger said he believes some of the findings in the report are reason for concern, and points the finger at the Exmoor National Park Authority (ENPA).

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ENPA say the Wave Hill report was commissioned to better understand the local economy and bring together partners to support sustainable economic development in harmony with the area’s special status as a National Park.

Dan James, sustainable economy manager for ENPA, said: “As we emerge from lockdown, the findings of this report will provide an important baseline to understand the issues affecting Exmoor’s rural economy and how we can best plan our recovery.”

The findings show that the accommodation and food and drink services are the most common line of business, representing 38 per cent of the total number of businesses.

Agriculture and retail are the next largest sectors each representing 14 per cent of all business on Exmoor and each providing an estimated nine per cent of jobs.

The report also shows that more than a third of Exmoor businesses are based from home, and that poor connectivity - both in terms of physical infrastructure and digital networks - were seen as the biggest barriers to doing business on Exmoor.

The survey found that productivity was low with an estimated Gross Value Added per job of just under £22,500, compared to over £45,000 across the South West.

Outspoken MP for Bridgwater and West Somerset Ian Liddell-Grainger said after delving into the 64-page document he was worried about some of the findings.

"The most worrying statistic is that the economic output is only around £113 million," Mr Liddell-Grainger said.

"That’s just under £11,000 a head - less than half what it is elsewhere in Somerset and Devon.

"And even compared with other deeply rural areas such as Northumberland the figure is anywhere between 45 and 70 per cent lower."

The MP said some of this may be down to demographics and an elderly population, but also highlighted how low productivity in tourism was cited as a contributory factor.

Mr Liddell-Grainger continued: "Transport connectivity – or the lack of it – is the biggest problem faced by more than 60 per cent of businesses.

"Clearly one of the things which make Exmoor so attractive once one arrives there – its very remoteness- can be a double-edged sword.

"Poor digital connectivity is raised as another issue affecting more than 40 per cent of tourism-related businesses.

"And the report’s authors’ attempt to explain this away as a generic rural problem rather than one specific to Exmoor conveniently overlooks the ENPA’s past stated opposition to communications masts.

"Then there’s the matter of planning, an area where the national park has acquired a reputation for wielding a very heavy stick indeed and for sometimes going to irrational lengths to prevent, rather than encourage, development."

Mr Liddell-Grainger said a number of high profile cases had landed on his desk where he felt the ENPA were being 'overbearing' and 'appeared to have severed all links with the real world'.

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The MP went on to criticise the ENPA for its tourism promotion too, claiming it has historically 'lacked dynamism'.

Mr Liddell-Grainger said: "The ENPA appears to have been driven more by a desire to stop, if not actually turn back the hands of the clock and maintain the moor in a time warp rather than to encourage more people to visit it – and in the process generate additional income for the accommodation and food sectors."

The MP concluded by saying this combination of factors was 'enough to make anyone contemplating moving their business out into the countryside to immediately strike Exmoor off the list of possible destinations'.

ENPA responded saying that the study was one of the largest and most robust independent studies looking into the rural economy and came about the Rural Enterprise Exmoor initiative.

The scheme was set up by ENPA to bring together partners in support of sustainable economic development, and its launch included speakers from three of Exmoor's most successful homegrown companies, Wicked Wolf Gin, Singer Instruments and West Country Blacksmiths.

Dan James, sustainable economy manager for ENPA, said: “As we emerge from lockdown, the findings of this report will provide an important baseline to understand the issues affecting Exmoor’s rural economy and how we can best plan our recovery.

“Through Rural Enterprise Exmoor, we are bringing together partners on a scale never seen before to try and find solutions to the kinds of challenges that affect all of rural Britain, but are compounded on Exmoor by its isolation from larger towns and cities and therefore poorer transport and communications links.

“This makes Exmoor one of the most isolated National Parks in the country, which is both a strength and a weakness in terms of its tourism offering.

"Where else in Southern Britain can you go to experience such tranquillity, remoteness and pristine wildness?

"Let alone ways of life and traditions many conventional farmers are now seeking to relearn as we strive for a greener agriculture system."

Mr James said ENPA was proud of Exmoor's thriving tourism industry, and added that while there were undoubtedly opportunities to expand on this, that is what the Rural Enterprise initiative was set up for.

"Working with Visit Exmoor, we were one of the first destinations in the country to launch our Tourism Recovery Strategy, galvanising tourism partners across Exmoor with a coordinated plan for welcoming back visitors when restrictions allowed," Mr James said.

“Our last visitor survey in 2019 indicated 99 per cent of visitors to Exmoor rated their trip as ‘very good’ or ‘good’, with 96 per cent believing the National Park is being well-managed and cared for."

Dean Kinsella, ENPA’s head of planning, highlighted that the department has to weigh up the demands on Exmoor so that its unique qualities can be passed on to future generations, while also looking after the communities within it.

Mr Kinsella said: “To help local families and businesses achieve their planning goals we have an extensive toolkit that includes regular surgeries and free pre-application advice.

"This coincides with stringent Local Plan policies designed to protect the unique character and scenic beauty of the area, while also considering socioeconomic benefit.

"We also work closely with housing authorities and community groups to ensure a ready supply of high-quality, affordable homes are available for local people.

“In the past 12 months this system has resulted in more than 90 per cent of planning applications being passed, an approval rating that puts us near the very top in the country.

"In the rare cases where a satisfactory resolution can’t be achieved, it’s reassuring to know further support is available from their local MP."

Mr Kinsella added that the ENPA had a long track record of working with network providers to improve mobile coverage.

He said: "Over the last five years well over 80 per cent of applications for telecommunications installations have been approved and we also worked proactively to secure the role out of Airband’s specialist rural broadband technology, resulting in far higher coverage than many other rural locations in the South West.

“We continue to support initiatives to boost mobile phone signal and encourage sustainable building development, while remaining sensitive to the unique character and scenic beauty of the landscape.”