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National Park Authorities (Elections)

Volume 554: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Benton. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of accountability in relation to Britain’s national parks. The matter is raised with me almost daily by local businesses and residents of the Lake district and the Cumbrian part of the Yorkshire dales, not because local people are desperate for more elections or because we are constitutional obsessives but because decisions made by people who are not accountable to those affected tend to be bad decisions.

As a result, businesses are under unnecessary pressure because they cannot expand, farmers are struggling because they cannot diversify, and local people, especially young people, are leaving our communities never to return because of the lack of affordable housing. Meanwhile, the rise in second home ownership has gone unchecked in recent years. A conservative estimate is that one in six properties is now a second home owned by folks wealthy enough to have a property in a national park that they occasionally visit, while locals who are desperate to stay are forced to leave.

That said, Britain’s national parks are stunning countryside protected for the nation. The 1945 to 1951 Attlee Labour Government spent a good six years implementing Liberal policies, among which was the establishment in 1951 of the national parks, including both the Lakes and the Dales. That was good legislation; it was a wise and visionary move. The motivation behind the Act was to preserve Britain’s most spectacular landscape and its environment and to promote the heritage of our national parks for the benefit of all the people of Britain. There was a sense that the national parks were the lungs of Britain’s towns and cities, and that they therefore belonged to the whole country, not just to those who lived, worked or indeed owned property or land there.

Today, those of us who are blessed to call the Lakes or any other national park home are proud to live in such beautiful places. We embrace the fact that our area is cherished by the nation. We are determined to be stewards of our countryside and to share it with all comers. The Lake district has 16 million visitors a year, the tourism economy of Cumbria is worth roughly £3 billion a year and, outside London, the Lake district is Britain’s most important attack brand for overseas tourism, drawing in millions of tourists every year, many of whom then visit other, less famous parts of Britain, adding hugely to the economy of the whole country.

It is vital for our environment, for biodiversity, for our tourism economy and for our fight against climate change that our national parks are protected, and it is vital for our nation’s heritage and for our sense of collective ownership that that heritage is propagated and that decisions taken about our national parks should be taken on behalf of the UK-wide community well as the local community.

I contend that the evidence of recent years shows that the local community’s interests are most likely to be overlooked when the balance of considerations is made. We in Westmorland and Lonsdale are blessed with two national parks: within the constituency are the most populated part of the Yorkshire dales, including Sedbergh, Dent and Garsdale, and the most populated part of the Lake district, including Ambleside, Grasmere, Windermere, Bowness, Hawkshead, Coniston and the Langdales, to name a few. For those towns and villages, the national park acts in many ways like the local authority: it decides on planning, environmental matters, provision of housing, car parking prices, tourist information and a range of other services.

Although I am talking about beautiful countryside, I am not talking about empty spaces. The Lake District is Britain’s most populous national park: 45,000 people live within it, and thousands more who live near it make their living there. The national park boards act almost identically to local district or county councils. There are 22 members on the Lake District national park board and 22 on the Yorkshire Dales national park board. Of those, six are appointed by the Secretary of State and by local district or county councils. A further four are appointed by parish councils.

The idea is that local council appointments tick the box when it comes to demonstrating that local people have a voice, but it is worth pointing out that many local authority representatives see themselves, understandably, as there to represent their local authority’s institutional interests rather than the interests of residents. To underline that point, many of those local authority representatives do not actually live in or represent wards in the national parks. Also, many parish councils that nominate members of national park boards tend be made up of people who, although able, decent and committed, became members of their parish council without being elected, owing to a lack of demand to take up parish council places.

That prompts the question whether there would be any interest in or demand for elections to the national park boards. Hon. Members might be interested to know that South Lakeland had the highest electoral turnout in the country in the police and crime commissioner elections on 15 November, but even then we managed only 23%. Perhaps that underlines the public’s antipathy to those elections. I suspect that one reason why the turnout was so low is that people felt that the post should not be politicised, and that we already have too many elections.

Maybe this is not the best time to be asking the Government—or, more important, local residents—to consider holding more elections, but let us look at it this way: we would not tolerate a district or county council making decisions about housing, planning, economic development, environment and tourism without its members being elected by the residents who had to live with those decisions. In fact we would be outraged, yet to the people who live and work within them, our national parks are effectively unelected and unaccountable local authorities.

That does not mean, however, that the national parks do a dreadful job. In fact, they do a good job. They protect our world-class landscape and environmental heritage to the extent that the lakes are potentially a world heritage site. They have done outstanding work, enhancing biodiversity in the Howgills and the Yorkshire dales, for example. They have performed an almost miraculous clean-up operation in respect of water quality in many of our lakes. They have made massive strides in reducing carbon emissions through improved cycle routes and rail integration. But they make silly decisions—for example, about aggressive car park ticketing prices in Hawkshead and Ambleside, and they choose to develop their main visitor centre at Brockhole in ways that are almost designed to damage local hotels. They throw out exciting, completely appropriate commercial ventures, such as the Honister zip wire, but they put pressure on farmers to reduce their livestock numbers, forcing many of them to abandon farming altogether. I suspect that they do such things because too often they do not listen to what local businesses, residents and farmers want.

My hon. Friend sets out the importance of national parks and some of the failings. Does he agree that experience in the Scottish national parks, which have had elected members since their formation, proves that the elections can be well contested and of great interest to local people?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. That is true. I will mention the Scottish example in a moment. The elections in the Scottish national parks have engaged people and made them take the national parks seriously, providing a sense of ownership rather than a sense that this is a national thing deposited upon them.

It is important that our national park boards are chosen by local people, not simply chosen by others, so that a strand of legitimacy supports their decision making. Of course, that is not to say that people who are elected will make perfect decisions. We hon. Members present are proud to be elected to this place, but there are occasions when we do not get things perfectly right. Decisions made by people who are accountable will tend to be better, because those people have had to listen to those who have put them where they are.

I agree with the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Is he proposing that all or most of the NPA members should be elected? There are a couple of pilot schemes under way, whereby a proportion—about half a dozen—members will stand for election. I am pleased to say that the New Forest national park authority volunteered to be one of the two authorities to go down this route. The NPA in the New Forest got off to a bad start, cutting across the grain of society, leading to protests, but after a complete reorganisation it now works with the community, which is why it is not afraid to volunteer to have at least some of its members elected.

My hon. Friend makes a superb point and underlines the case. I envisage a minority of people, rather than a majority—these are national parks—being there as the local voice. It is commendable that the New Forest NPA has put itself forward and it is to be congratulated on that.

If our national park boards were in part elected, they would, as my hon. Friend said, be far more legitimate in the eyes of local communities, residents and businesses, because there would be a far greater sense of collective ownership of decisions. Local communities would be far more willing to accept even difficult decisions, if they felt that they had at least been arrived at with the local case having been made.

This is about the quality of decisions, not about the quality of the people. The Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales national parks are led by outstanding chief executives. Cumbria’s two national parks are led by Richard Leafe and David Butterworth, decent people with vision and immense competence. The Lake District national park is chaired by Bill Jefferson and the Yorkshire Dales national park by Carl Lis, both of whom are staggeringly hard-working servants of our local community and who are desperate to do the right thing, both by the nation as a whole and by local residents. All the board members I know—I know most of them—are good, decent people who are dedicated to their roles and selflessly give their time and service.

I return to what I said at the beginning. The national parks are there for the enjoyment of the whole nation. It is right that a proportion of the board membership should be selected nationally, but wrong that none of those members should be elected locally.

I welcome the proposed pilots in the Peak district and the New Forest. I note that Scotland has blazed a trail with national parks, with Loch Lomond and the Trossachs electing many of their board members for some years now. But why are all national parks not required to elect some of their members, and why was the nation’s biggest, highest-profile and most populated national park, the Lake District national park, not first on the list in the selection of the pilot project, whether it volunteered or not?

Is there not a special case for introducing democratic legitimacy in the Yorkshire Dales national park, given the genuinely mixed response received in some quarters to plans to extend its boundaries? Many residents and businesses in and around Barbon and Casterton retain deep concerns about proposals that would bring their communities within the boundaries of the Yorkshire dales, not least because these are Westmorland communities and have never been in Yorkshire. Their concerns mostly focus on their fears that, whereas planning and housing decisions affecting them at the moment are made by the democratically elected and accountable South Lakeland district council, in future they may be made by an unelected and unaccountable national park.

There are, of course, dangers in introducing elections to the national parks. Just as many of us do not want our police service party-politicised, we do not want our national parks to become arenas for party politics. I would advocate for party political labels not being allowed in the contest, for example, to ensure that there was no sense that national parks would simply ape local councils in that respect. Nor would we want vast amounts of public money to be spent on such elections. However, given that every year in Cumbria there are parish, district or county elections, it would be possible to ensure that national park elections coincided on the same day to ensure cost savings and, at the same time, to maximise turnout.

If we thought that electing a proportion of national park board members would ensure decisions that everyone was happy with, we would be deluding ourselves. However, life can be tough in our national parks, because incomes are often low, and housing and the cost of living are high. Businesses need to be able to thrive, communities must be able to hang on to their young people, and farmers must be able to continue to farm. What point is there in attempting to maintain a thriving tourism industry in the lakes and the dales, if the dead hand of restriction kills off expansion and innovation?

Do we really want national parks that can only be lived in by the wealthy few, or do we want our national parks to be open to people of all income backgrounds? lf we want thriving businesses and thriving communities for people from all income backgrounds in our national parks, we need to ensure that decisions are taken by people chosen by our local communities, who will be responsive to those communities and will answer to them for decisions that they make, both good and bad.

As Winston Churchill said, democracy is not much of a system, but it is infinitely better than all the alternatives. He was right. It is time that that applied to our national parks, too.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this debate. I do not know if any other hon. Members have two national parks in their constituency, but my hon. Friend certainly brings with him real authority on this subject. From contact that he has with me over the past two and a half years, both by letter and through parliamentary questions and other means, I know the extent of his interest in this important subject. I am grateful for this opportunity to respond to the debate.

The Government are committed to breaking down the perceived barriers between local communities and those making decisions on their behalf. As my hon. Friend mentioned, we have introduced directly elected police commissioners. There may be some doubt about the glee with which the electorate crammed themselves into the polling booths to elect them, but I feel sure that things will change over time. We also have directly elected mayors, and we have made other changes to increase local accountability. My hon. Friend is right to say that the issues we are debating today are political, as is the case with policing. They are matters of great concern to our constituents and they are vital to people in such areas who know and care about these landscapes.

Through the Localism Act 2011, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government made changes to give more power directly to communities and individuals so that they can challenge local authorities and take over and run the community services that are so vital. This is important to both parties in this coalition Government.

This is a timely debate, as my ministerial colleagues and I are actively considering the results of our consultations on the issue. That is why I should address the points in detail. I should say something about the importance of national parks to our country and this Government. As my hon. Friend rightly said, in 1936 the then Standing Committee on National Parks lobbied the Government for measures to protect and allow access to the countryside for the benefit of the nation. That pre-war world of 1936 might seem a long time ago, and many aspects of our world are unrecognisable from that time, but some constants remain, one of which is what the national parks can offer us. We need a sense of challenge in our lives just as much our forebears did, and we need the uplift that comes from contact with nature, as they did. The parks style themselves as Britain’s breathing spaces, which is exactly what they are for their more than 50 million visitors a year from home and abroad. That is of enormous benefit to our society. Those visitors help to support more than 22,000 businesses, the vast majority of which are small or medium-sized enterprises.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale is absolutely right to praise the leadership of his local national parks. Whether we are talking about a parish in our constituencies or a large area such as that covered by the national parks that he knows so well, there will be issues on which there is a divergence of opinion. What might seem good to one of us might not seem so good to another, especially when dealing with something such as planning. He was right to allude to the complexity of these issues at times and to the fact that many good things that are done are not always appreciated by everyone.

The national parks continue to deliver on their two core purposes: to conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage; and to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of those national parks by the public. The means we use have, of course, changed over time, and they may change again. For the first 40 years of their lives, national parks were essentially managed by local government.

The Minister sets out the two purposes of the national parks, but the legislation also includes a duty to take into account the economic and social needs of the communities that the parks serve. Surely at the heart of this demand for democracy is a better understanding of those issues.

I will come on to talk about that, but it is important that the three legs of the stool of sustainability are considered at every stage: environmental, yes; economic, absolutely; as well, of course, as the social dimension the parks give to their inhabitants and visitors. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

To turn to the main issue of the debate, the coalition’s programme for government said:

“We will review the governance arrangements of National Parks in order to increase local accountability.”

That commitment was honoured with a public consultation that ran from 9 November 2010 until 1 February 2011. The question of accountability and transparency was central to the consultation. The Government take seriously the improvement of the transparency of decision making and an increase in the accountability of national park authorities. We have made it clear that variety between authorities is possible, which would allow that governance to reflect better the national parks’ individual circumstances and histories as part of our commitment to decentralisation and localism.

Since the original legislation was enacted in 1995, there have been calls for some members of park authorities to be directly elected, which now already happens in the Scottish national parks authorities, as my hon. Friends suggested. I said in September 2011 that I had concluded that the time had come for us to explore that option more thoroughly in England, so I consulted on legislation that would allow for the possibility of elections to the national park authorities and the Broads Authority. Initially, we proposed to apply new legislation on a pilot basis in two parks, namely the New Forest—as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) mentioned—and the Peak District. They provide different contexts in which to assess the effect of directly elected members.

First, I should be clear that although national parks cover some 9% of the country, have a population of more than 320,000 people, encompass in excess of 700 local authorities and parish councils and handle some 9,500 planning cases each year, fewer than 170 responses were received on the question of direct elections, which is a staggeringly low figure. Fewer than 40 of those responses came from individual members of the public. While a majority of responses were generally in favour, there was no clear consensus, even between parks, that direct elections were the answer to improving local accountability. As the Deputy Prime Minister recently made clear, opinion is divided.

Secondly, while much is made of the possible benefits of introducing some elected members into the national park authorities, views are divided and some practicalities need to be taken into account. The legislation required to implement direct elections would be significant, so we would need to identify a suitable opportunity in the parliamentary timetable. I must share with hon. Members the fact that such legislation would not only create a significant call on the time of the House but, as we face the reality of the financial situation, we would be bound to ask if this would really be a good use of public money. Initial estimates indicate that the costs of the proposal could run into many hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds, although obviously there would be a full cost assessment nearer the time.

Thirdly, the consultation proposed holding pilot elections in the New Forest and Peak District national parks during May 2013. Given that we have not yet secured the required legislation, those pilots obviously will not go ahead on time. It is also clear that we cannot and should not commit to any wider programme of direct elections without piloting so that we can fully understanding what impact, if any, the changes would have on the performance of the national parks in question.

Finally, direct elections are not the only mechanism for improving accountability and openness, and some of the suggestions from the governance review are already being taken forward by individual parks. Many avenues could be explored and, in conjunction with the park authorities, we will continue to look at what can be achieved. It is also worth making the point that local authority members of a national park authority are elected members of the local authority, so they are already held accountable through the ballot box, although not to the satisfaction of some. Similarly, parish council members are sometimes elected.

I am not entirely happy with the thrust of what the Minister is saying. Are the pilot schemes therefore on hold indefinitely? With the greatest respect to the Government, the legislative pressure on the time of the House of Commons means that it should not be impossible for such relatively uncontentious legislation to be slotted into the timetable, especially if the past few weeks are anything to go by, when we have frequently finished our business earlier than scheduled.

I am happy to share with my hon. Friend the information that I have been given about the complexity involved. I can give him my absolute solemn commitment that I think that this is something that the Government should do. I do not believe, unlike some colleagues in both our parties, that everyone down to the dog warden should be elected, but I believe in localism and local accountability, so I have been progressing things in a meaningful way.

I was surprised by the complexity of something that initially, I agree, sounds like it should be simple. However, I have been concerned about conversations that we have had with the Boundary Commission about matching boundaries, which sometimes follow more ecologically-based routes than politically-based ones, as well as about the many measures that would need to be included in a Bill. I am happy to go into more detail, but I can absolutely give my hon. Friend my commitment that if the resources were there and if we could find the parliamentary means, we would take this forward, as it is something that the coalition is firmly united in wishing to achieve. I will give him more detail at a later date.

I am a little concerned about the direction in which the Minister is going, but I am pleased that he thinks the Government should make progress. However, we already effectively have pilots in Scotland, so we have learned what to do constitutionally and about how the impact is felt in the national parks.

There is time to act in this Parliament. When I challenged one of the Minister’s predecessors in the previous Government about this, their view was that as the national park authorities had been asked whether they wanted to be elected, and they said no, they would not be elected. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas, even though I greatly respect the high quality turkeys in the New Forest.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point, and I can only give my commitment that although we remain in favour of direct elections, we must ensure that we achieve that in the necessary time scale and with the resources we have.

It is interesting that Scottish national parks have all-postal ballot elections. When I raise potential complications, it sounds as though I am being negative, but I assure my hon. Friends that I am not. However, we need to mention the fact that there is concern about such elections.

When I had the pleasure and privilege of going over to monitor the US elections, I was surprised to find that some US states have wholly postal ballots to elect their President.

My hon. Friend may like to share his thoughts with colleagues in the Cabinet Office, who are looking at greater participation in elections. After what happened two weeks ago, I want more participation in local elections, and if we could get more people voting by post, that would be good.

I was delighted to hear that the Peak District magazine Park Life recently published the names, photographs and telephone numbers of all members of that authority. That is the start of real transparency. It does not happen in every national park authority, so we must press them to look at such innovations.

In an ideal world, I would like to devolve decisions to national parks if they can prove that there is local demand, and we can introduce enabling legislation that allows them to take that forward and let a thousand flowers bloom. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale that I will keep him in touch with any progress and ensure that what we are doing is affordable for the resources in my Department, feasible in terms of the primary legislation that I am convinced that we will have to introduce, and workable locally. I assure him that the Government remain in favour—

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).