A consultation on direct elections by the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs caught councils unawares when it was quietly published as Parliament began its summer break.
Few anticipated a shake-up of the existing system in which national park authority members are nominated either by councils, parishes or the government. They exert power over planning, conservation and recreation.
Environment minister Jonathan Shaw admitted the existing national park membership “seems to be working well.” But he said it was “timely to reconsider whether our existing system remains the best approach”.
The consultation has been viewed by councils as another threat to their democratic mandate, amid lingering anger over the direct election of chairs for crime and disorder reduction partnerships proposed by last month’s policing green paper (LGC, 24 July).
Senior Derbyshire CC councillor David Wilcox (Lab), also chairman of the Local Government Information Unit, warned: “We are in danger of having a plethora of elections and if there were direct elections for park authorities the issue of competing mandates also becomes a problem. I don’t think direct elections would improve decision making or find a great deal of favour from those involved in the parks.”
Local Government Association programme director for regeneration and transport, Paul Raynes, said: “Councillors have a mandate from the ballot box, which is the basis of local accountability, and we don’t see how having someone with a specific service mandate would improve accountability.
“What if they conflicted? Would one trump another?”
He said it was unclear if the national park and policing proposals were part of a government drive for direct elections to replace council nominations.
LGA Labour group leader Sir Jeremy Beecham said: “In principle, I am not keen on directly elected authorities of this kind. I don’t think that there is an appetite for additional elections.”
Lewis Rose (Con), leader of Derbyshire Dales DC, half of whose area lies in the Peak District National Park, said: “I welcome the idea of national parks being more democratic, but they seem to expect us to give up our nominations on the authority.”
English National Park Authorities Association director Paul Hamblin said: “The justification for any change needs to be elaborated. The link between park authorities and local authorities is very valuable.”