The coalition government promised to dismantle quangos and give more responsibility to local people.  A great concept but unless government ministers change their mindset from prehistoric to 21st century, these changes will not happen in an open and transparent way. 


Take the current Review of National Parks Governance Arrangements as an example.  National Park Authorities' members are unelected – and always have been.  This review could be the first opportunity for residents, businesses and visitors of National Parks to give their views, comments and ideas on the best way forward – after all; they know what is best value for money in their communities more than anyone else, and furthermore, they should not be denied the opportunity to directly elect these members.


Defra’s Minister for Natural Environment and Fisheries, Richard Benyon, met with the chairs and CEOs of English National Parks on 7 September “to discuss the remit for the governance review, current methods of community engagement and options for greater local accountability”.  Defra will “launch a consultation document for the public to comment on options for streamlining the current governance arrangements and possible changes to a national park authority’s responsibilities.  The outcome of the consultation will be announced in the spring”.  Richard Benyon also states that he has “encouraged” national parks to ensure that opportunities for local consultation processes are fully utilised.  One National Park Authority Chairman states “he [The Minister] made it clear that he intended to launch a consultation early in November on governance and engagement – with the NPAs facilitating the consultation process itself”.


It is clear that these options will be put forward to Defra by the National park authorities (which traditionally have a democratic deficit) before the general public are asked to comment on a “consultation document”.  National Park residents know from past experience that NPAs will only consult the public up to the point of legal requirement.  This is just short of a whitewash and will do nothing to protect the socio-economic well being of rural communities if these authorities are only interested in self-preservation.   It is fundamentally not good enough for Defra to sit on the fence and merely encourage national parks to consult with residents.  For “Big Society” to grow healthily, Defra should show a willingness to embrace it, whatever the outcome.


If other government departments use these tactics when it comes to reviewing their own quangos, it may only reveal the shallowness of this coalition’s “Programme for Government” and that after all the hype and spin, you cannot change a dinosaur into a 21st century ‘power to the people’ machine without firstly changing the mindsets of civil servants.


(A personal view from Sue Baillie

30 Sept 2010)