Death of Democracy in the Dales.
Tuesday June 30 was a black day for local democracy and representation in the Yorkshire Dales National Park according to the Association of Rural Communities. And it has warned that it is likely there is worse to come – disenfranchisement from local democracy for a quarter of England’s population.
At the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority virtual meeting on Tuesday the majority of the members accepted a recommendation to slash the Authority’s membership from 25 to 16 to try and fend off the even more radical proposals in Julian Glover’s Landscapes Review. These include the creation of a new body, the Natural Landscapes Service, to oversee all National Parks (NPs) and Areas of Outstanding National Beauty (AONBs).
The Chief Executive, David Butterworth told members that Glover’s proposals on governance in the Review were quite startling. ‘He maintained that the main Boards should be between nine and twelve members all nationally appointed.’ And Butterworth warned that, even during the Covid-19 pandemic, the work on implementing the Review’s proposals had been made a priority by the government.
‘The introduction of a National Landscape Service … is proceeding at an astonishing pace. This is why we need to grasp this particular issue and get it sorted because, if we don’t, it will be sorted for us and not necessarily in a way we might find helpful for the Park or its communities,’ he said.
Member Nick Cotton commented: ‘We have got an express train heading towards us and we have to be aware that change is going to be inevitable.’
He was a member of the the working group set up to evaluate the membership of the Authority. He said: ‘We were caught between a rock and a hard place, the devil and the deep blue sea, the frying pan and the fire. We were forced into looking at every option that we had and if we didn’t make a difficult decision we would have an even more difficult decision forced upon us.’
Butterworth explained: ‘Glover and the panel working alongside him felt that National Park Authorities (NPAs) had lost sight of their national remit and the national purposes for which they were established. They hadn’t been successful in combating the decline in nature conservation; should be doing more to combat climate change and were too parochial. Our visitors, like our staff and our boards, were not diverse enough. These issues were best addressed by more and better central direction through the establishment of a new body, the National Landscapes Service.’
He added that both the working group and the Authority’s Audit and Review Committee to which it reported had felt that Glover had seriously undervalued the importance of not only local representation but the important links that NPAs have with local communities through the services they provide.
‘It is not the size of the committee that matters. It is the efficacy of the membership. I find it much easier to work with those who are willing to work and not sit and simply talk,’ commented Lancashire County councillor Cosima Towneley
Jim Munday, deputy chairman of the Audit and Review Committee, agreed with Butterworth that this was the best way forward. And, like the Glover Review, argued that the Authority’s membership should be more in line with the boards of charities and private companies. ‘We have to do this. This is a practical, pragmatic solution… and we have to move forward.’
Craven District councillor Robert Heseltine, however, retorted: ‘The National Park Authority is a public body… it is a local authority in its own right. It is not a private charity nor is it a private company. It is a public body and it should have proper public, democratic representation. Personally – these recommendations are a retrograde step for our rural areas and more importantly a retrograde step for the democratic process.
‘With the substantial geographical expansion of the Yorkshire Dales area that we have just assimilating to be followed by a 36 per cent reduction in membership is illogical, it is demeaning for local democracy, it is unnecessary and it is unwise. Also, to reduce the national representation in a national park down to four demeans the national interest in national park governance.’
He was one of the five members to vote against the recommendation. Another was North Yorkshire County councillor Richard Welch who stated: ‘Today isn’t D-Day, it’s a treble D Day: Death of Democracy in the Dales.’
He spoke of how he regularly attended parish council meetings to report on what was going on in North Yorkshire and in the National Park. It was doubtful, he said, that he would be able to continue to doing that about the National Park. This was because, in future there would be just one Craven District councillor on the YDNPA board – and just one from North Yorkshire County council who might not be from Craven. It meant less democracy and accountability, he said.
Allen Kirkbride pointed out that with 16 members the YDNPA would have fewer members than any other NPA. He argued that, given the geographic and population size of the YDNPA, 20 members would be more ideal.
It was also noted during the meeting that Lancaster City and Lancaster County Council would be over-represented with the reduction in membership. By law each local authority is entitled to appoint a member to the YDNPA: three county councils and five district councils. The membership of 16 will include eight Secretary of State appointees of which four are parish council representatives.
After the meeting the Association of Rural Communities commented: ‘The government’s decision to extend the boundaries of the Yorkshire Dales Park has led to the absurdities which now exist in the membership of this quango: that a Lancaster City councillor will have the same voting power as the single representative of Yorkshire County Council even if the former represents only a population with the Park of 139 while the latter will represent 2,689. That is no criticism of the individual councillors.’
Further comments from the Association of Rural Communities:
Compare that to the situation in the Lake District where there is just one county council. Its National Park Authority describes itself as ‘The Voice of the People’. Its Board includes five Cumbria County councillors, five from district councils and ten Secretary of State appointees (including parish council representatives). In addition to that it has the Lake District National Park Authority Partnership consisting of 25 organisations with representatives of public, private, community and voluntary sectors. This Partnership approach was recommended by Julian Glover’s Landscapes Review.
The Review begins by stating: ‘The underlying argument of our review, which covers England, is that our system of national landscapes should be a positive force for the nation’s well-being.’
It proposes that the National Landscapes Service should be set up to bring the 44 National Parks and the Areas of Outstanding National Beauty (AONBs) in England together as ‘part of one family’. The Review notes that 24.5 per cent of England is already covered by these national landscapes. And it expects that even more areas will be designated as national landscapes.
The sting is, however, ‘in the tail’ when it proposes that all National Park Board members should be appointed by the National Landscapes Service and the chairs of Boards by the Secretary of State. That means a quarter of England would be taken over by the government and a new quango. The Review contends that this is because the government – and the taxpayer – pay for these national landscapes. But what of all the services that the county councils are providing in those areas such as highway maintenance, schools and bus services. And how is the work of farmers and landowners valued? Without them who will physically maintain those special landscapes? And what of the communities?
So, while proposing to completely undermine local democracy and representation, the Review states:
‘Our system of national landscapes works best when it works with people on its side. We can all agree that a village that is lived in, with an active school, people who work, and who are part of a living tradition, is better than a sterile place that is full of shuttered homes, empty pubs and derelict shops.
‘If we are serious about demonstrating the value of “lived in” landscapes to the global family of national landscapes, then we need to be serious about the people who live in them, and show how it’s possible to offer meaningful social and economic support for them.’
For that reason it proposes new purposes for the National Parks: Recover, conserve and enhance natural beauty, biodiversity and natural capital, and cultural heritage; actively connect all parts of society with these special places to support understanding, enjoyment and the nation’s health and well-being; and foster the economic and community vitality of their area in support of the first two purposes. If there is conflict between these greater weight will be given to conservation in line with an updated ‘Sandford Principle’.
The Review states: ‘We also think it is essential that communities have a voice in decision-making, which is why we want to keep local authority and parish representation on planning committees, and introduce community seats on Boards.
‘We’ve found local people often feel National Park Authorities are remote, despite the heavy presence of locally-elected representatives. The most is not made of Secretary of State appointees.’
So – the Review proposes to stop the selection of any Board members by local authorities and instead have all members centrally appointed.
The Association of Rural Communities has frequently pointed out that those who are most remote from local people in the Yorkshire Dales National Park are often the Secretary of State appointees (not including parish councillors) and the local authority councillors on the Board who do not live in the National Park. This has been a constant complaint of local residents since the 1980s.