Why are direct elections to National Park Authorities so difficult for Defra to understand?
Almost 50 years elapsed between the formation of the National Park Authority in the New Forest (2005) and the previously designated Northumberland National Park in 1956. So, what’s changed in this time?
Well, as many as three generations of residents have grown up within a National Park and have probably given little thought about the people who run it, because it’s been that way since they can remember.
I can recall my grandmother once saying she couldn’t question her GP’s diagnosis of her eye problems because “he knows best and it isn’t my place to say anything”. Three generations ago people put the medical profession on a pedestal without question, but would today’s generation feel the same? No, because they have instant information, facts and figures all within the click of a mouse. If you have a medical problem today it is very likely you will want to know more about the condition, and head straight for the internet to search for more information so you can make an informed decision. That’s called being empowered.
Fifty years ago the notion of democracy or - heaven forbid – empowerment, were hardly everyday words in local or central government. As a consequence, people believed that local authorities were competently dealing with changes to their environment and communities, because “they know best”. But do they?
Today’s media provides in-depth information on what’s happening around us; locally as well as globally. Over the past 50 years this has gradually empowered people to ask questions about all kinds of issues, which may have an impact their lives. People today want to be more informed and so, democracy has blossomed. But has it blossomed within National Parks?
When the New Forest was designated National Park status it probably used a blueprint from previous long-established National Parks on which to base their management structure, but a 50-year-old example is not fit for purpose today. This caused many difficulties for local residents who still feel disenfranchised from the decision-making process simply because they don’t have the opportunity to directly elect authority members.
Everywhere else in the country, people who make decisions in a local authority or council do so because they have been elected locally, specifically and democratically by those who live there. Is it therefore right that people who happen to live inside a National Park are denied the same democratic process and opportunity?
Richard Benyon, the Minister in charge of our National Parks recently said “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”. Blooming heck Mr Benyon, Defra have already committed to running pilot direct elections in the New Forest and the Peak District for May 2013. You have postponed these for what I believe are spurious reasons – will you now just get on with it please!
30 November 2012