My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
On 12 November (Official Report col. 32WS) I informed the House that I was confirming the designation of the South Downs National Park and signing the orders which set the precise boundary. I am now proceeding to establish a national park authority for the new national park.
On 16 July 2009 I consulted on the membership of the future South Downs National Park Authority, proposing that the authority should have from 29 to 37 members. I am most grateful to all those who have taken the time to submit a response to that consultation.
There was a diverse range of views expressed, not only on the size of the proposed authority, but also on its composition, and on the representation of those who live in and around the new park. Although several people offered views on how parish seats might be allocated, this is a matter for the parish councils within the park to determine.
The main reasons cited by those in favour of a 37 seat authority or larger were that it would enable proportional representation of all local authorities, as well as enable more grass-roots representation with parish councils having several seats. While I understand the reasons for many respondents favouring such a composition, it is the case that, once selected to serve on the park authority, members are expected to act in the best interests of the park in its entirety, so any emphasis on weighted representation is not really consistent with that principle.
A number of respondents favoured a medium-sized authority of around 31 to 33 members, in preference to the two ends of the range laid out in the consultation paper. While appreciating that this might draw together the best features of both a large and small authority, it would not be large enough to allow it to be fully weighted nor would it be small enough to minimise the additional administrative burden which a larger authority might create.
Those supporting a smaller, 29 seat authority saw it as creating an efficient, cost-effective authority, with faster decision-making, and at a lower cost to the taxpayer. The suggested composition was generally 15 local authority, eight national and six parish seats. Although a smaller authority would mean weighted representation would not be possible, it would still allow every local authority one seat.
A further option emerged in the wake of the consultation which is for a 27 seat authority. This is made possible because two local authorities have stated they wish to share a seat. This would reduce the minimum number of local authority seats from 15 to 14. As I have previously confirmed my view that local authorities should have an absolute majority, this would require the Government to respond to the reduction in local authority members by reducing the number of national members from eight to seven. So the overall composition could be 14 local authority, seven national and six parish seats.
Having considered each of the above options carefully, and being satisfied that it would be appropriate for Worthing and Adur councils to share a seat, I have decided to opt for a 27 seat authority. In order to ensure that the national park authority keeps in close touch with communities and is able to respond to their concerns, I expect the authority to place a big emphasis on community and stakeholder engagement. I shall now include the 27 member authority in the statutory instrument which I shall lay before Parliament around the turn of the year. With Parliament’s consent, this will allow the national park authority to be established from 1 April 2010 and to become operational from 1 April 2011.
A summary of the responses, plus a list of all respondents, can be found on the Defra website at http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/south-downs-membership/index.htm.