For Richard Leafe, the Lake District is both his workplace and his playground.

Over the last 17 years he has become well known in Cumbria and beyond as chief executive of the Lake District National Park Authority and, when he’s not at work, he can usually be found running somewhere in its fells.

In fact, he says there are lessons he has learned in the mountains which can also be applied to his job. "To achieve your objectives you need a bit of planning and you need a bit of risk management and risk management is about being aware of things that happen on the way and changing your plans; if the weather suddenly takes a turn for the worst, or it's a bit windier than you'd anticipated,” he says. "I think a lot of the skill of being safe in the mountains is about listening to your gut and how you're feeling.”

Since he became chief executive of the authority in 2007, Richard has tried to balance his own ambitions with those of his colleagues, as well as the many businesses and residents whose lives and livelihoods are intertwined with the park. However, at 59, this year is his last year in the role before he stands down to pursue his love of the fells as a mountain leader. It is a love affair which first began during trips to the Peak District with his parents from their home in suburban Nottingham. He continued to catch the outdoor bug at school, taking part in geography field trips and the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme.

"I remember very distinctly being on a geography field trip in the North York Moors for my A-levels and thinking how much I liked being outside, looking at the landscape and thinking about how it came to look like it looks, physically and economically," he says.

"That was a real moment for me where I definitely decided that I wanted to continue doing that and that's when I made a decision to study geography. It was probably a defining moment, along with my first visit to the Lake District National Park when we did a tour around Great Langdale and I was just blown away that this country had mountains the size of the mountains that it does. I distinctly remember thinking 'This is just a great place. I would like to know more about this and spend more of my time doing this.'"

Inspired by his experiences, Richard studied geography at the University of Sheffield before beginning work at the Nature Conservancy Council - now Natural England - as a coastal geomorphologist. His work required him to consider ways to balance the requirements of building coastal defences, while ensuring this did not damage Sites of Special Scientific Interest across the country. He rose through the managerial ranks at the organisation, with roles including European policy officer and finally regional director for Natural England North West.

All of these jobs gave him a good grounding in one of the major themes of his career, namely understanding a landscape and environment and seeking to balance the needs of those who have an interest in it. This is a challenge which continued when he was appointed chief executive of the Lake District National Park Authority, preceded by Graham Essex-Crosby who was interim successor to Paul Tiplady, who filled the position for eight years.

The appointment put him at the centre of an organisation charged with understanding and weighing the needs and desires of a current resident population of 40,000 and 18 million annual visitors.

"From early in my career dealing with the full complexities of life has been central to what I've had to do,” says Richard. “I brought that philosophy into the national park, at a time where it had just set a vision around sustainable development in which we allow the park to reach its social and economic potential, look after the communities that live here, but in a way that enhances and doesn't degrade and destroy the environment. I felt instinctively, and I still do, that you can have your cake and eat it. You can allow the local community and economy and society to develop but you can also use what you know about the natural environment of the park to make sure that it doesn't go too far.”

In very simple terms, he says the authority only really has one main job, which is to produce a management plan for the park. “It sounds relatively easy,” he says. "But in that plan, you have to set a direction and reconcile many competing aims to deal with the tensions between the resident population and the visitor population, between the needs of farming and the demands of recovering nature, between the needs of the tourism industry and locals for housing. The job of the park authority is to work with all of the stakeholders in that area, to describe a plan that pursues an agreed collective vision for the place."

He says gathering detailed, reliable environmental data has been essential to the decision-making process, as well as always considering the visual impact of any development and how it changes the view within the park.

"The additional thing that we've added into that picture, I think, is a really clear understanding of the heritage value of the built heritage and the national park,” he says.

“Our journey to World Heritage inscription and beyond has given us a much, much clearer understanding about what's important in the landscape from a cultural theme.”

As chief executive he says his job is to provide direction, although the decisions made have not always gone the way he would like.

"Occasionally, things go the other way, particularly in development decisions, whether they are influenced by public speaking in the meeting or other people's voices," he says.

"It is a democratic process in action. That inevitably leads to some departures from policy, generally for very good reason. My job is to corral and steer and try and move all of that in the right direction, in pursuit of that vision. When you get into a position where the park authority is taking contradictory decisions that people don't understand, then at that point we've lost it really, we need to be really clear about what it is we're trying to do. Of course, that's much easier said than done.”

In Cumbria:

Although the park does own and control assets within it, much of its work comes down to floating ideas and facilitating communication with other bodies, such as local authorities, landowners and businesses around development and change.

“Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t,” says Richard.

“Sometimes people say ‘Yes, we’d like some of that,’ other times they don’t. The pace of change can be frustrating on the ground, because there is a need to take so many people with you. But I think it's probably the least bad system of going about it. I don't think I'd like to have total power over the place. Trying to involve people to take them with you is a really important skill.”

Climate change has been a major priority for Richard, both trying to reduce the park’s overall carbon footprint and to future proof it against more extreme weather events.

"If I have a regret, it's that successive governments in recent years haven't really got to grips with all that we need to do to start to make changes in society so that we can address those carbon emissions," he says.

"There's still too much carbon in the economy of the national park, whilst at the same time the impacts from climate that we've seen have been fundamentally stark."

He says this impact was never more obvious than during the flooding and devastation caused by Storm Desmond in December 2015, which caused millions of pounds of damage to infrastructure including bridges and paths. Richard says there are still vulnerable structures at risk of being seriously damaged in future extreme weather events.

Other major challenges have included the slashing of the government funding to the national park following the financial crash of 2008, with the park reducing its workforce in the face of budget cuts.

"The most difficult decisions have always been around restructuring the business when financially we've had to make a change and making the decisions about which organisation we have to divest in order to invest in other bits can be really tough because that's people's lives and jobs,” says Richard. “Making sure that we've got an organisation fit for the future is very important but it involves taking tough decisions.”

Dealing with the dearth and then influx of visitors during the pandemic was clearly another challenge. However, Richard believes the staycation boom - which saw a new demographic of visitors coming to the park - was hugely positive overall, despite the well-publicised examples of bad behaviour such as littering and poor parking. He says visitor figures show an increase in people under 50 coming to the park and in particular teens and those in their twenties.

"In 2018 two per cent of our visitors were from a minority ethnic background, now 22 per cent are," he says. "So all of a sudden, we've got a much younger, more diverse audience over that period of time. I think in terms of appealing to the nation as a national park that is a terrific move forward.”

He believes the time spent trying to educate and clean up after the minority is worth it for the net effect of inspiring more people to appreciate, and hopefully care for, the natural environment. "It is infuriating to find abandoned tents by tarns and on numerous occasions my staff have spent a lot of time and energy going above and beyond to bring that stuff down," he says. "But there's a bit of me that thinks I would prefer those people to be out there experiencing that than not. What we have to do is just work on it to say ‘It's great that you experienced it, but what about changing the way that you behave and looking after it and thinking about what you're leaving for the next visitors?’.”

Richard says he is “blown away” by the diversity of people he sees in the fells.

"You see people who are not experienced mountaineers who are going up Helvellyn, for example, and it is a serious, challenging undertaking for them. It's great to witness that taking place. They're having a great experience in a natural environment that is part of their heritage, just as much as it is ours.”

A major achievement he looks back on, alongside the challenging times, is the World Heritage Site inscription for the park in 2017. He says while the World Heritage Site brand has enhanced its identity it also gave the park the opportunity to analyse and understand what “is really special about the heritage of the place”.

"We've got really under the skin of that through the nomination document and we understand now so that when we take planning decisions we don't take decisions that harm that cultural landscape, the identity that goes with the walls, buildings, vernacular, everything that's in there. The thing that we've done less well over time is interpreting why it's a World Heritage Site and what it means.”

He hopes this can be remedied in part by the creation of the new 13 Valleys Trail, which takes in valleys throughout the Lake District, each reflecting different aspects of its story.

"I think that will be a really good way of getting some of that immense amount of information that we've got on the place into more accessible bits of bite sized information,” he says.

He is also pleased with work to aid nature recovery in some areas, through projects such as Wild Ennerdale and at RSPB Haweswater. "I know water quality in places like Windermere is under great public scrutiny now and I very much welcome that,” he says. “But the evidence is that over time we have seen a decrease in phosphorus pollution, in particular in the lake, and I think that's a trend that's moving in the right direction.”

Richard would like to see more farmers beginning to adopt practices which work with nature to increase biodiversity while producing food and improving soil health.

“There is a real movement under way, starting to work out what it means for an upland farm to get their head around what regenerative agriculture means, which in a nutshell, is much more of a focus on soil quality. Get the soils right, and everything else will flow from it. It's great to see that starting to happen.”

In the future Richard, who lives in Kendal with partner Beth Kennedy, plans to pursue his love of the outdoors by becoming an independent mountain guide and taking people on walks through the fells, perhaps incorporating parts of the 13 Valleys Trail.

He is currently involved in preparing for the 13 Valleys Ultra with event company Great Run, featuring 180km, 110km, 55km and 20km routes and is in training for the Island Peaks event in Scotland, in which teams sail from Oban to Troon with members running the high peaks of various islands en route.

Richard says he will depart the national park with sadness but also excitement at the next stage in his career and a sense of pride at what it has achieved during his time at the organisation. "We still face challenges, but as a park it is better adapted to climate change and its carbon emissions have gone down,” he says.

“It has recovered nature from where it was on the whole but there is still a lot more to do on that front. We have got a thriving business economy, albeit a bit dented and still recovering from Covid and critically, we have got a new audience in the park that's much younger. Overall, I feel proud of what we collectively have achieved over that 17-year period.”