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Trouble in paradise
Local Government Chronicle – 28 August 2008

The government's surprise proposal for direct elections to national parks has shocked their authorities and local government alike. Mark Smulian joins the debate

It was grist to the mill of any conspiracy theorist who thinks Whitehall is out to nobble local government.

Ministers might talk a good game about localism, but hard on the heels of the row about directly elected crime and disorder reduction partnership chairs there came a proposal for direct elections to national park authorities (NPAs).

Did local government face dismemberment as its functions were separated into bodies elected on a different basis? Whatever next - separate elections for waste disposal commissioners, with the Incinerator Party fighting the Anaerobic Digestion Party?

The Local Government Association was not impressed. Councils evolved from the need to co-ordinate the functional boards that grew up in the 19th Century, and the idea of reverting to that model did not appeal.

Paul Raynes, LGA programme director for regeneration and transport, says: "Councillors have a mandate from the ballot box, which is the basis of local accountability, and we don't see how having someone with a specific service mandate would improve accountability. What if they conflicted? Would one trump another?"

Local government was caught by surprise, its resentment increased by the stealthy way in which the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs launched the direct election consultation.

This came out on 28 July with no press release, even though a release was published that day on national parks, which simply extolled their attractions for the summer.

At present NPA membership is a combination of councillors nominated by their council, experts chosen by the government and parish council nominees, who must be confirmed by the government. The Norfolk Broads has members who represent marine interests, rather than parishes.

Rural affairs minister Jonathan Shaw's introduction admitted this system "seems to be working well".

So that's all right then? No. National parks were set up decades ago in England and Wales, but only recently in Scotland, where direct elections have replaced parish nominees. This model caught some MPs' attention and Mr Shaw agreed to consult on it, but said he had an open mind.

His consultation paper noted: "Those who are democratically elected have a legitimacy which no appointee can ever have", and that this could be important with planning, which NPAs deliver instead of councils in their areas.

The paper also raised some obvious problems. If directly elected members were in a perpetual minority they would be unable to deliver on any manifesto commitments. Directly elected members might consider themselves to have a greater legitimacy than those appointed by the government or councils, so creating two tiers of members, it warned.

Councils with national parks in their areas are not generally supportive of direct elections. Lewis Rose, (Con) leader of Derbyshire Dales DC, some 40% of which lies in the Peak District National Park, says: "I can see competing mandates would cause problems and conflict. We feel we have the democratic mandate."

He sees direct election potentially worsening conflicts over affordable housing if, for example, candidates were elected on a platform opposed to development in the park. "Affordable housing is our number one priority as voted by the public, and the difficulty is to get land available for private building to cross-subsidise it. The Peak District does not do that, and we think it should. The council can facilitate affordable housing, but not in the park, and that puts pressure on the rest of the district."

Cllr Rose points out that Derbyshire Dales has the highest house prices in the East Midlands, particularly around the park's 'capital' Bakewell, "yet we have relatively low wages because much of the area depends on agriculture and tourism". New Forest is the newest national park, and New Forest DC leader Mel Kendall (Con) dislikes the idea of direct elections. He does not like the present arrangement either.

"National parks should be part of the county council administration along with the police, fire, ambulance and primary care trusts, with a few people appointed to them for their expertise," he says. "Direct election would move us even further from that model."

Cllr Kendall argues the problem lies in government appointment of expert and parish members. "It is made pretty clear to them by the government that they should do what officers tell them to, so you end up with national park authorities run by the officers with lip service to elected politicians," he says.

There has not been a conflict between the council and the NPA. But Cllr Kendall argues there is not "always the right balance now between conservation and the need for employment".

Nicola Bulbeck, chief executive of Teignbridge DC, takes a more cautious line, saying: "As with all change, there should be demonstrable evidence of direct benefit to all our customers and residents."

There is no consultation on direct election as yet in Wales, where parks cover 20% of the country, but it would meet opposition from the Welsh Local Government Association.

Director of regeneration and sustainable development Tim Peppin says: "The main issue is councillors have a democratic mandate and if members of the park authorities did too there could be conflict, rather as there is in the idea for police authority elections."

Nor is the Association of English National Park Authorities very enthusiastic about DEFRA's idea. Its director Paul Hamblin says: "We see the relationship between local authorities and park authorities working well and the councillors create a really important link."

One enthusiast for direct election is John Blackie (Ind), who is a member of Richmondshire DC, North Yorkshire CC and the Yorkshire Dales NPA. "Direct elections would give greater local accountability and democracy and take out the issue of political balance," he says. "A council has to have political balance in its appointments to park authorities and that can mean choosing members who do not live in the park.

"When I first got on in 1997 I had to do political trades to get a seat, yet I have 5,325 constituents and only 50 of them are outside the park."

And a glance north of the border may show that fears about direct elections are groundless, according to Highland Council convenor Sandy Park (Ind), who sits as a council nominee on the Cairngorms NPA alongside directly elected members.

"I really cannot say that I have seen them claim a greater legitimacy or cause any conflicts with the council," he says. "Direct election ensures that people who live in the national park can elect local people who live there too onto the board."

This is a strange consultation. It emerged with no fanfare and no obvious lobby behind it. On balance, councils affected hope it will disappear equally unnoticed.

The Role Of National Parks

Fourteen national parks have been designated since 1951, and they may be joined by the South Downs, the subject of an interminable planning inquiry.

Park authorities' formal roles are to conserve the parks' natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage and provide opportunities for public access and enjoyment. They exercise planning powers in support of these goals and usually employ their own planners.

Paul Hamblin, Association of English National Park Authorities director, says: "These are iconic landscapes visited by millions of people each year.

"The park authorities directly control only about 20-30% of their work so they have to work with local partners and need good relations with them, and for many services that means local authorities."

NPAs have been alarmed by the sub-national review, he says, as they fear what the priorities of the business-led regional development agencies (RDAs) might be for spatial planning. "We are concerned that RDAs will create significant challenges, being business led, and we want to work with local authorities to ensure we all still have a place at the table," he says.

NPAs and councils collaborate well to meet the needs of these sparsely populated areas, Mr Hamblin says.

In Bakewell, for example, the Peak District NPA and Derbyshire Dales DC started a regeneration project in 2000, which has created a thriving livestock market and agricultural business centre.

"The town and its surroundings remain attractive to visitors, yet the planning allows town centre living," Mr Hamblin says.

Lake District NPA is working with Cumbria CC to develop a plan that will deliver 11.5% savings in CO2 emissions by 2010-11. This includes the development of a sustainable transport strategy for the park.