Unitary authority changes could further hit democracy in the Yorkshire Dales, it is claimed

Swaledale. Photo: VisitBritain.

Government plans to rapidly create unitary local authorities in North Yorkshire have sparked further concerns over the representation of residents in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, just weeks after the park body agreed to cut the number of elected members.

The seven district and borough councils, alongside the county council and City of York Council have been told to table proposals by September to create one or more unitary authority covering the city and England’s largest county as part of a move towards devolution for the area.

Despite concerns over how well represented the residents of less populated areas, such as Richmondshire and Craven, would be on a unitary authority, most local authority leaders in the county have indicated support for devolution.

County council leader Councillor Carl Les said while “it must make sense to transfer decision-making from Whitehall to the town hall”, with the devolution of powers the government would provide a sum of money called gainshare, and this could be “at least £25 million a year for the next 30 years of unfettered money to spend in our region”.

However, he will also tell a full meeting of the county council next week that local decision-making and accountability must be protected in the reorganisation.

The unitary authority proposals follow the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority voting to cut the number of councillors deciding upon key services and issues, such as planning, across the 2,179sq km area, to one per council, following government pressure.

Residents have raised concerns that a cut in the number of authorities serving North Yorkshire could see one representative from the county on the body for more than 4,000 residents while representatives for Lancashire would each serve 139 residents.

In response to the changes, the Association of Rural Communities, has raised the issue with MPs whose constituencies cover the park, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak, former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith and former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron.

In a letter to the MPs, ARC states proposals to replace the national park authority with a National Landscape Service, “filled with government appointed members who never need to be legitimised by the electorate”, will lead to no democratic input or scrutiny.

The letter warns the new body would “just add another layer of costs and bureaucracy”.

Pip Pointon, of ARC, who has scrutinised parish council meetings in Wensleydale since 1995, added: “District councillors have regularly attended parish meetings to ensure that the views of local people are heard.

“If district councils in such a large county as North Yorkshire are closed down we will lose this vital element of democracy and representation.”

A spokesman for the national park authority said: “At this stage we don’t know what the devolution proposals are likely to be, and any debate around the issue is not one for Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority.

“We will deal with the implications for our own board of members when we know what the outcome of devolution is – if there are any.”