Bringing Democracy to National Parks

The Campaign for National Parks (CNP) and several National Park Authorities have responded in broadly (but not resoundingly) welcoming terms to yesterday's announcement by Defra of a package of measures intended to give local people a greater say in the way that National Park Authorities are run in England. However the reaction to some of the proposals has been a little lukewarm.

English National Parks - Timeless?, 175 kb
English National Parks - Timeless?
© Dan Bailey

The proposals, outlined by Natural Environment Minister Richard Benyon, follow several months of public consultation after a Coalition pledge to review the governance arrangements of National Parks in order to increase local accountability.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Benyon made some positive noises:

'Our National Parks are our most treasured landscapes enjoyed by millions of people every year and contribute significantly to regional economies. The changes we are making will give the local communities a greater say in how their National Park is managed.'

In the Peak District and New Forest the government has decided to pilot the idea of directly elected members of park authorities; initially a limited number only (five or six possibly). In addition, as a result of the proposals the membership of some National Park Authorities will reduce, with a maximum term of appointment proposed for all members and anyone that lives in the Lake District or the North York Moors National Parks able to apply for a seat as a parish member.

'Encouragingly, the government continues to recognise [the value of] National Parks ...managed by independent authorities to maximise the benefits that we all derive from these special areas' says a CNP statement. However they go on to sound a note of caution regarding the democratising and localising of park authorities. These are after all National Parks, not Local Parks.

'While this [pilot] will provide useful experience of operating direct elections, it will be important to ensure that the national perspective in National Park Authorities is not undermined. The government has also decided to remove the requirement on councils to apply a political balance when appointing three or more members to a National Park Authority. We will be responding to the forthcoming consultation on this to ensure that appropriate safeguards are in place to prevent National Park Authorities from becoming politicised.'

That would be a dismal prospect indeed.

Carl Lis, chairman of the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA), also offered the measures a slightly mixed reception:

'I am happy the Government has listened to the voices of those who responded to the consultation. There are some interesting and contentious issues in the document that will generate major debate over the coming weeks. But our main focus remains on delivering our day-to-day services and purposes in the current difficult financial climate.'

The long term effects of these measures are as yet unclear, particularly combined with the government's wider aim to reform planning policy in order to favour development over conservation. No wonder the CNP and others are sounding a little cautious.

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