Unitary council fought to retain councillors representation in national park

The leader of North Yorkshire’s new unitary council has revealed how it fought against a government department move in order to maintain residents’ representation on the body which shapes the Yorkshire Dales National Park.

Rejecting the Association of Rural Communities claims that North Yorkshire Council’s launch represents “the final nail in the coffin of democracy” across the 841sq mile protected area, Councillor Carl Les said he believed the pressure group had misunderstood recent changes in the park authority’s membership.

The Conservative-led council leader said he wanted to “set the record straight” following the association issuing a statement accusing the government of committing a “a major crime against local democracy”.

The association’s comments came almost three years after the authority’s members were warned they faced battling out “a war of attrition” over controversial proposals triggered by a government commission review to cut the number of its decision-makers from 25 to 16.

Concerns were raised the changes would mean a small number of residents in the Lancaster City and Lancashire County council areas of the park would be over-represented compared to residents in the large Richmondshire District and North Yorkshire areas of the park.

The association, which was founded in 1995 to press for more consistency and fairness in planning decisions, and more democracy and accountability, in the national park, issued the statement last week criticising the replacement of locally-based district councillors with members of the unitary authority, some of whom live further afield.

The group pointed towards how Reeth-based councillor Richard Good had been replaced on the park authority by Councillor Steve Shaw-Wright, who represents Selby, almost 73 miles from the Swaledale village.

Reeth stands at the junction of two dales which the group said “would have been key factors in its designation as a national park in 1954”.

An association spokeswoman said: “The barns and walls in Swaledale and Arkengarthdale are so iconic that in 1989 much of those dales became the largest conservation area in the country.”

The group added other “local district councillors” had been replaced by people who did not live in the national park.

Alastair Dinsdale, chairman of the Association of Rural Communities, said: ‘I see this as the final nail in the coffin of democracy within the national park.”

A park authority spokesman said appointments to all national park authorities were made by councils, and by law, they were required to make these on basis of political proportionality, while Coun Shaw-Wright said the park’s title illustrated it was a matter of national rather than local interest.

Following the latest controversy, it has emerged that using the governance arrangements under local government reorganisation the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which oversees national parks, suggested the authority’s membership should be slimmed down with the end of the district councils.

Coun Les said concerns over communities’ representation had been highlighted to the Department of Communities and Local Government.

He said: “We complained about that and got that stopped, so I appointed the Conservative members who were part of the park authority representing district councils as representatives of North Yorkshire Council.

“It had to be politically proportionate, so that’s why Labour had to find somebody from outside the national park area as they don’t have any representation in the park.”