DEFRA – ELECTIONS TO NATIONAL PARK AUTHORITIES – 28 November 2012
Dr Julian Lewis: I agree with the thrust of what the hon. Gentleman [Tim Farron] 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.
[Tim Farron: 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. ...]
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[The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): ... 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.]
Dr Lewis: 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.
[Mr Benyon: 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. ...]