Direct elections to our National Park Authorities?

The Queen’s speech published on 4 June has raised once again the possibility of new legislation to introduce direct elections to our National Park Authorities. Direct elections have been proposed several times in the past (last time by the previous Labour government in 2008). On each occasion, proposals have been quietly dropped as the subsequent consultations suggest that the present system works well. But clearly questions remain over the accountability of National Park Authorities to their local communities and in some ways the proposal looks like a popular measure. Perhaps we should reflect on why this might be the case.

National Park Authorities are effectively run as local authorities (although all their funding comes directly from central government). They are responsible for conservation and recreation, and they are the planning authorities within their areas, most of which cross several local government boundaries. It is often this planning function which is most controversial. Whilst it is interesting to reflect if there is a local planning authority anywhere in the country which can claim popular support, it is at least encouraging that when residents in the Peak District were last surveyed in 2012, only 11% claimed to be dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the authority’s overall services – although this figure rose to 22% when asked specifically about planning. Perhaps encouragingly though, only one in ten residents felt the Peak District was not a good place to do business.

The Peak District NPA also involves a wide range of stakeholders, local and national, in the development and monitoring of its primary Management Plan. This plan sets out the area’s special qualities, and tries to bring together and coordinate the work of the many different people who help achieve the purposes of the Peak District National Park. An independently chaired advisory group, involving a wide range of different organisations, oversees the implementation of the plan. These efforts have all been important innovations in trying to involve everyone who cares about the Peak District in its future.

Many people who live in and those who visit our national parks are unaware of the make-up of current authority membership – believing that they are wholly creatures of central government. This is not the case. In England, their membership is a combination of councillors nominated by their local county and district councils (so therefore already elected by local people), national experts chosen by the government (following open advertisements), and parish council nominees. The inclusion of parish councillors was a controversial decision when this was first introduced, nearly twenty years ago. But I believe many involved with National Park Authorities would now agree that this has hugely improved the links between the authorities and their local communities, and increased involvement and understanding in their work. Not many other local authorities could be said to have such community level participation in their decision-making processes.

The Queen’s speech proposes a new bill to enable direct elections to English National Park Authorities and the Broads Authority for “some” board members. It is not yet entirely clear who these will be or how the process will work. National Park Authorities themselves appear to be tentatively welcoming the new proposals – although the details are yet to be clarified. So perhaps the new proposals will be an improvement – just as the addition of parish councillors turned out to be all those years ago.

But many people and organisations will also remain concerned. Interestingly, the Local Government Association expressed reservations on the last occasion this issue was raised. Some constituent local authorities feel their local democratic mandate would be challenged if direct elections to the National Park Authorities over-turned their role. Equally, it will be important to understand the impact of these proposals on the Secretary of State appointed members. Traditionally these members (and I have to admit a personal interest here – having been such a member for ten years on the Peak District NPA) have been appointed both to bring specialist expertise to the Boards, and also to ensure the wider, national voice of everyone who loves and visits our national parks is heard. That wider, national role is crucial in protecting our national parks for the nation.

It is thought that our government has looked to the Scottish system, where current membership is decided rather differently (and under different legislation). The Cairngorms National Park Authority’s board comprises 19 members. The Scottish Ministers appoint seven members, another seven are nominated to the board by the five councils in the Park area, and five are elected locally. So perhaps the detailed proposal will reflect this system, and the directly elected members will replace the parish council nominees?

A further issue could well be who will be responsible for organising these elections, and who will bear the costs of the process? Some commentators have also raised concerns about the lack of public interest in local elections generally, and whether the new proposals might end up being dominated by special interest groups who can mobilise particular support on particular issues.

So we all await the detailed proposals in the new bill with interest. The devil will be in the detail – as always. This issue might appear overly bureaucratic and just a trivial governance `tweak`. But it could have profound effects on how and for whom our national parks are managed in the future.

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