New UNESCO programme recognises the UKs seven Global Geoparks, including the North Pennines

UNESCO – the United Nations Organisation for Education, Science and Culture – has announced a new programme, which creates UNESCO Global Geoparks. This is the first new UNESCO programme to be established in over 40 years and puts the Global Geoparks alongside UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. Previously operating with the informal support of UNESCO, the status of Global Geoparks will be formally recognised under the new programme.

This new designation is being conferred on the existing UK Geoparks, including the North Pennines. The UK is home to six other Global Geoparks, stretching from the English Riviera in the South to Geopark Shetland in the North, and including two Global Geoparks in Wales and a cross-border Global Geopark shared by Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The UK sites are part of a growing international network of Global Geoparks – areas of outstanding geological interest which use their unique geology to drive local development.

All of the UK’s Global Geoparks have internationally significant geology. But what sets Global Geoparks apart from other designations is that it comes without any restrictions on development and the primary focus is on using Earth heritage to support sustainable economic development of the area, primarily through geological and responsible tourism. In the North Pennines, this has included holding geology festivals and events, developing geological trails across the landscape, creating displays in local museums and visitor centres, producing educational resources, working in local schools and more.

The UK’s Global Geoparks have already brought millions of pounds of investment to their local areas, generating an estimated £8.7 million from April 2014 to March 2015 according to a new study conducted by the UK National Commission for UNESCO, that is due to be released later this year. The award of the UNESCO brand is expected to further enhance their work, helping to create new funding and partnership opportunities, attract national and international visitors, and raise awareness of the UK’s unique geological heritage.

In welcoming the announcement, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, Rory Stewart MP, said: "This is the most fantastic news. It gives us a great international profile. Connecting our geological heritage and literally our bedrock with our community and economy is a very exciting opportunity. The work Geoparks do locally, and their new UNESCO status, could inspire people for years to come."

A main focus of the Geoparks is to promote tourism. VisitBritain Chief Executive Sally Balcombe said: “This is exciting news and a real accolade for the seven Global Geoparks, as well as the communities who sustain them. This year we launched our ‘Countryside is GREAT’ campaign to increase international visits and the breadth and beauty of the Geoparks will provide significant opportunities for visitors to explore the UK’s incredible geological heritage and contribute to local economies.”

Local tourism leaders across the North East and Cumbria also welcomed the news. Jude Leitch, Director of Northumberland Tourism, echoed the comments of Visit County Durham and Cumbria Tourism in saying: “I’m delighted to hear that the North Pennines is to be designated a UNESCO Global Geopark through the new UNESCO International Geoscience and Geoparks Programme. This will strongly contribute to our aims to increase the national and international profile of our area and appreciation of its unique qualities. We’ll look forward to continuing to work with the team to maximise the potential the UNESCO Global Geopark status can have on our visitor economy”.

UK National Commission for UNESCO’s Natural Sciences Director, Dr. Beth Taylor, said: “The UK’s seven Global Geoparks are a national treasure, not just in terms of their geological interest but the enthusiasm and dedication of their local champions who work so hard to maintain them and to make the most of the educational and economic opportunities they offer. I hope that the UNESCO brand will give our Global Geoparks the same recognition factor as World Heritage Sites – a visible guarantee of their international significance and an assurance that they are great places to visit and explore.”

The new programme was approved at the 38th Session of the UNESCO General Conference in Paris on 14 November.

The UK’s Global Geoparks and the UK National Commission for UNESCO plan to mark the announcement with a series of community-focused events during European Geoparks Week in May 2016 and an associated national photography competition.

Unusually for such designations, they can be revoked in a four-yearly review process if constant progress isn’t made and new projects developed. Partly with this in mind, Jon Charlton, Programme Development Manager, leads on the Geopark for the North Pennines AONB Partnership, which oversees the designation locally, said: "This recognition comes at an ideal time for us as the resources to do the necessary work to retain this designation are thin on the ground. There’s certainly no UK public funding support for this work, and so as well as seeking partners for EU funding we are due to make a significant bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund and several trusts to support a major new programme of work from 2016 to 2020. This will include new downloadable trails and apps, lots of local community projects, apprenticeships and work with local schools.

“We also aim to bring children here from across Europe for an International Geocamp in 2017, giving them great experiences and supporting the local economy. The full UNESCO status comes at just the right time to provide the springboard for this work and securing the necessary resources to build on what we’ve achieved in the past”.