THE DARTMOOR National Park visitor centre has a six-month reprieve from closure - although it is exected to close down due to a funding crisis.
However, intensive efforts will continue until the end of September to find an alternative permanent venue in Princetown.
The centre was due to close down early this year to save the national park authority (DNPA) money as it faces a shortfall of £0.5m due to reduced government funding from Defra.
This sparked a wave of opposition, including from villagers, MPs, local businesses and the parish council because it attracts 80,000 visitors a year (including schools), supporting the economy.
The DNPA has postponed the closure until the end of September while extra funding is sought to keep it open - most probably in another form in another building.
Dr Kevin Bishop, chief executive, DNPA said: ‘Authority members have approved the use of reserves to fund the continued operation of the visitor centre for up to six months from the end of March.
‘We hope that this will provide time for Defra to confirm whether they will be able to confirm any additional funding and to continue work on alternative ways to deliver a visitor centre offer in Princetown that delivers the required financial savings.’
Pressure has been building on Therese Coffey (Defra Secretary of State), by DNPA and local MPs to release funding to continue the visitor centre’s role.
The authority chairman Pamela Woods and Mr Bishop met with the four MPs (or their staff) whose constituencies include the National Park.
The MPs all agreed lobby the minister, led by Sir Geoffrey Cox, Torridge and West Devon who also met Trudy Harrison (Defra minister for national parks) just before Christmas who promised to explore the potential for additional funding.
Mr Bishop added: ‘We are grateful to people who have taken the time to write to the authority and their local MPs expressing their concern about the potential closure.’
He confirmed the DNPA has been consulting with West Devon Borough Council which supports a continued presence of the visitor centre in in some form in Princetown. He has also been discussing alternatives with the Duchy of Cornwall the owners of the visitor centre building.
Mr Bishop said: ‘The national park authority faces a significant financial challenge due to continued real-term reductions in its core grant from Defra. A shortfall of at least £0.5million in the medium-term.’
The DNPA is consulting with staff on proposed changes to services and potential redundancies to address the financial shortfall.
Mr Bishop said although there is ‘no guarantee of additional financial support from Defra’, funding the continued operation of the visitor centre for six months ‘provides time for these issues to be resolved before a final decision on the future of the Visitor Centre is taken.’ Phil Sanders, authority member, said: ‘No one wants the visitor centre to close, we know how important it is for education, with lots of school visits and it attracts thousands of local and tourists every year.
‘The funding issue is beyond our control and there’s no way we can afford to keep it open with the reduced income. It gives us time to look at different ways of providing a service in suitable sites. We definitely want to keep it in Princetown.’
Gregg Manning, Dartmoor Forest Parish Council chairman, said: ‘The Parish Council were very active in the beginning by contacting our local MP as a parish council and then individually.
‘I was constantly fending off questions from parishioners and spoke of their support when talking to the DNPA. We exchanged letters with Dr Kevin Bishop and made him aware of how damaging it would be to the parish and indeed to the National Park were it to close.
‘I personally feel it became that hot potato that nobody wants.
‘The latest is that the plan has been given a six-month reprieve while other funding is identified and also whether changes to the lease would allow them to try new income streams. I think once we got the MPs and Defra talking we were on the winning side.
For the future we have to wait and see but will be monitoring it very closely.’