In July last year DEFRA launched an open consultation to seek the views of a range of stakeholders on the principle of whether some members of National Park and Broads Authorities should be directly elected.
The majority of the national park authorities’ membership comprises local authority and parish councillors selected by their respective councils, with the remainder being appointed by the Secretary of State in recognition of the national interest. The Broads Authority has a different membership structure under its own primary legislation to reflect the broads’ navigational interest.
During the passage of the Broads Authority Private Bill the question arose of whether there should be parish members on the Broads Authority. As a result this issue was included in the consultation on direct elections.
A total of 490 responses were received to the consultation. The strongest support for the principle of direct elections came from respondents within the Broads Authority and New Forest national parks for reasons of local democracy and local representation in relation to planning decisions, but there was very little support for larger authorities to accommodate directly elected members.
Most stakeholders considered that direct elections would not lead to any improved effectiveness or efficiency of national park authorities, including the authorities themselves. Many national park authorities, local authorities and parish councils expressed concern that direct elections in place of their members would have the effect of disenfranchising the local authorities and parish councils which the park authorities work with leading to the effect of serious repercussions in relation to their influence with other bodies, particularly at regional and national level.
There appeared to be no consensus on which category of members to replace to accommodate directly elected members. All categories of members have provided a significant contribution to the effective working of the Authorities. However, many individuals who live in the parks and MPs have raised the issue of democratic accountability and local representation for local communities in the parks.
I have been impressed with the range of community engagement that already occurs, and having carefully considered the responses I have decided not to make any changes to the current membership arrangements. I am proposing ways of improving the accountability of the national park authorities and to apply more consistently some of the examples of best practice across all parks.
The park authorities will be required to apply the ‘Duty to Involve’ measures contained in the Local Government and Public Health Act 2007, which will assist local authorities and others in understanding what the park authorities are, their functions and how people can get involved.
Although there are a range of accountability measures already in place, including the holding of authority meetings in public, local area agreements, formal performance assessments and annual inspections by the Audit Commission, I have also asked the park authorities to examine other ways of engaging the public and local residents in the decision making process, for example;
Making the reporting of progress and performance more open and transparent including information on progress in delivering the objectives set out in the national park management plans.
Considering whether existing forums provide sufficient opportunities for public involvement in priority setting and improving the engagement of parish councils.
Undertaking regular resident and visitor surveys to obtain feedback on the services provided by the authorities, openly publish analysis of these, and demonstrate how they are shaping the delivery of services provided by the authority.
Given the ability of parish members to provide local knowledge, I will also consider more closely the role they play in existing national park authorities, and ways of enhancing the parish member appointment processes to ensure they are made more consistent and include opportunities for wider public involvement.
I have asked for a report back to my Department in 12 months time on how the park authorities are building on their existing arrangements for engaging the public and local residents.
On the issue of appointing parish members to the Broads Authority, while there was some support for these appointments this should not be at the expense of a reduction in the existing categories of membership. Although I am not in favour of adding parish council members to the Broads Authority at this time, I am prepared to reconsider the matter if local government restructuring meant that there was a need in any case to revise the Broads Authority’s membership.
Examples of existing and proposed accountability measures in addition to those mentioned above:
Methods by which national park authorities are currently accountable for their activities and decisions are numerous and include:
NPA meetings being held in public, with the papers made available, including on websites.
Formal NPA performance assessments being undertaken which includes peer and stakeholder review and rigorous independent scrutiny.
A commitment to public participation which goes beyond statutory public consultation on the preparation of the national park management plan and subsequent publication and monitoring of delivery.
Publication of NPA corporate plans and other strategies.
Undertaking resident and visitor surveys to test opinion and receive feedback on services and priorities.
Publication of newsletters to both residents and to visitors from beyond the National Park boundary, and customer satisfaction surveys designed in order to improve performance and to ensure services meet customers’ needs.
Hosting consultative forums that bring town and parish councils, amenity groups and other local associations together to discuss shared priorities, and run community and stakeholder forums to gather views.
Some possible new measures under consideration
NPAs sharing good practice in the area of public involvement and early experience of implementing the ‘Duty to Involve’ requirements.
NPAs could consider if cost effective improvements can be made to the publishing of forthcoming meetings.
NPAs could explore whether they can enhance the support given to capacity building of parish councils. This might entail, as an example, running a joint event for parish councils on the planning system to help build their capacity to engage with policy development and respond to planning applications, and offering annual planning liaison meetings with each parish council to improve understanding of the process.