Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Some Thoughts on The Glover Review

Following on from my article about the lack of progress with the peer review recommendations, I turn now to the recent (well, ongoing) Glover Review of National Parks - an independent review of England's National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which includes the Broads. The deadline for submissions has now passed and you can read the Broads Authority’s contribution here. For a different view, here’s the text of my own submission, following their question and answer format, which I hope might stimulate interest and discussion.

What do you think works overall about the present system of National Parks and AONBs in England? 

The raison d'ĂȘtre of National Parks and AONBs remains as important today as it was 70 years ago - to preserve the countryside with the twin objectives of conserving nature & wildlife, whilst enabling public access & enjoyment. In the case of the Broads (where I live and work), we have a special kind of designation which is neither National Park or AONB; the Broads (which has its own legislation) is unique for the fact that it's defining characteristics are man-made rather than entirely natural, and its navigable waterways not only run right through its heart, but define it geographically, economically and culturally.

What do you think does not work overall about the system and might be changed?

A common criticism of the structure of National Parks is the issue of accountability, and this is particularly true of the Broads where 50% of the area's funding comes from direct taxation (in the form of boat tolls) without any form of elected representation for toll payers on the board. National Park Authorities - including the Broads Authority - exist without any form of external scrutiny or practical public accountability.

What views do you have about the role National Parks and AONBs play in nature conservation and biodiversity? 

National Parks & AONBs should continue to focus their attention on issues specific to their particular geographical area, working in partnership with Natural England and other statutory bodies. Care should be taken to avoid mission creep and duplication of effort where national bodies might be better qualified and resourced to provide advice.

Could they do more to enhance our wildlife and support the recovery of our natural habitats? 

In the Broads, care must be taken when defining "natural habitat". If left to nature, the Broads themselves would disappear in a few decades, returning to their "natural" state of marsh carr and the loss of many habitats. Certainly there are habitat creation and enhancement opportunities in the Broads, though these might not necessarily be "natural". The management of the Broads over centuries - initially for peak diggings and latterly for navigation - has created habitats for a wide variety of species, many of which are unique to the Broads. The Broads Authority should encourage the continuation of sustainable management techniques, established over generations, to ensure that habitats are not lost.

What views do you have about the role National Parks and AONBs play in shaping landscape and beauty, or protecting cultural heritage?

Again my comments relate to the Broads. Here, the Broads Authority are responsible for dredging the rivers and maintaining the river banks - though this is partly also a riparian landowner responsibility. Over the past 75 years, the Broads have become shallower and trees such as alder & willow have been allowed to proliferate on the adjacent marshland. The resultant shading has caused a decline in reed growth, which in turn has meant a loss of the natural bank protection which they provide. This has resulted in a huge change in the visual landscape, a loss of habitat and practical issues for navigation. The Broads Authority's current work programme scarcely halts the decline and it needs to set itself much more aspirational and ambitious targets in terms of restoring lost navigational area, open marsh and reed beds. The current restoration of Hickling Broad is a notable exception, but numerous projects of this scale are needed - and even this one required special funding from the HLF. 
Protecting cultural heritage means (in part) ensuring that historic buildings are preserved, and this requires a more flexible planning regime than is currently the case. The Broads Local Plan continues a theme of resisting development or alternative uses for heritage assets - which need to have an economic value to ensure their future, and will deteriorate with time, unless they are properly maintained. Resisting any development which is perceived to be detrimental to the character, appearance or integrity of the building or structure, or insisting on unrealistic standards of design, may result in the asset deteriorating further or being lost. Likewise, resisting 'inappropriate' changes of use must be balanced against the need to ensure that the building has some future. In order to preserve our cultural heritage, the Broads Authority must recognise that the Broads is not a museum, and must evolve and develop in order to preserve its heritage for future generations.

What views do you have about the role National Parks and AONBs play in working with farmers and land managers and how might this change as the current system of farm payments is reformed? 

Farmers have an important role in the wider catchment of the Broads - particularly in respect of land drainage. The nutrients coming into the rivers upstream in the form of run off from fields plays an important part in determining water quality and habitat downstream.
Land owners must recognise their wider responsibilities as stewards of the countryside, and public access should be strengthened in areas of significant cultural, landscape or navigational value. In the Broads, large areas of the navigation have, historically, been annexed - probably unlawfully (due to the right of public navigation on tidal waters). One of the largest Broads - Hoveton Great Broad - has been closed to the public for over 100 years and allowed to deteriorate through lack of management. Over £4M of public money is now being invested in restoring this Broad, a scheme which has caused an outcry locally because, although the restoration is undeniably important, there is no public benefit in terms of access. The Broads Authority failed to address this when the plans were first mooted, and appears to lack determination to restore public access - despite having a statutory duty to extend* the navigation area.

What views do you have about the role National Parks and AONBs play in supporting and managing access and recreation? 

My previous response relates to this question too. The Broads Authority needs to have a stronger focus on protecting and enhancing public access both on and off the water. I am less convinced of the need for the Broads Authority (or any other National Park authority) to 'manage' recreation - I see their role as enabling rather than managing. In the case of the Broads, they should be enabling/restoring access to public footpaths, closed navigations, providing public slipways and other launching facilities. Recreation facilities themselves are, by and large, the responsibility of private companies and other organisations.

What views do you have about the way National Park and AONB authorities affect people who live and work in their areas?

The activities of the Broads Authority primarily affect people and business in two ways. The first is through its planning function, and here the Broads Authority has an unenviable track record. It has a history of making decisions which display a lack of knowledge of the National Planning Policy Framework and Guidance (more often than not successfully appealed) and has a tendency to embark on serial enforcement campaigns against certain individuals, whilst ignoring others. In particular, it fails to comply with planning regulations or take enforcement action in respect of its own developments. The executive area is really too small to justify a standalone planning department (typically processing 300 or so planning applications each year, mostly for minutiae), and the Broads Authority should return to the system of delegating planning decisions to the relevant district councils which overlap its executive area. This would result in a considerable cost saving to the public purse, and decisions made by better resourced and experienced planning departments.
The second effect on people is unique to the Broads, due to the Broads Authority's responsibilities as a harbour and navigation authority. It dredges the rivers and carries out other maintenance work to the navigation area, and charges vessel tolls in order to re-coup its expenses incurred in doing so. This work (and the tolls charged) have a significant effect on the tourist economy, especially for the businesses operating holiday cruisers, day boats and passenger boats - and their employees. The visitor economy is Norfolk's largest industry sector, supporting 18.4% of all employment and contributing £3.245 billion to the local economy. Although the Broads Authority is relatively well focused on its navigation responsibilities, it lacks aspiration and appears to see its job as trying not to move backwards, rather than making any positive strides in extending and improving the navigation. 

Are they properly supporting them and what could be done differently? 

The Broads Authority appears to suffer from almost universal stakeholder mistrust. Parish councils, local authorities, hire boat operators and private boat owners all share similar concerns about the Authority's unwillingness to listen or engage, and it seems to have descended into a siege mentality following negative press coverage and numerous complaints. 

What views do you have on the role National Park and AONB authorities play on housing and transport in their areas? 

The Broads Authority tends to view the Broads as a special case, and often resists pressure for housing development and infrastructure projects. In its defence, the executive area is fairly tightly drawn in relation to the rivers and broads, and there are few opportunities for large scale housing developments. But there are objectively assessed needs - especially in relation to people wishing to live on boats - and the BA needs to take a more proactive stance in respect of encouraging. rather than resisting, sustainable development.  

What views do you have on the way they are governed individually at the moment? Is it effective or does it need to change, if so, how? 

The system of governance at the Broads Authority requires, in my view, fundamental reform. Absolute power is effectively vested in its Chief Executive, who gathers around him a cabal of "senior" members who decide on policy outwith the membership as a whole. This system is contrary to the Broads Acts, which require that policy and decisions are directed by all members and not by an unelected executive sub-group. Members merely act to rubber stamp policies which have already been worked up by this executive group. In response to a recent peer review recommendation to improve governance arrangements, the Authority decided to meet less often (4 times a year instead of 6) - effectively vesting even more control in the executive.
On the principle of no taxation without representation, the Broads Authority should be composed of directly elected members, with an electorate including residents, business owners and toll payers. The current system of appointees results in members who have little or no knowledge or understanding of the Broads, and who quickly become quiescent as part of the status quo. The adopted code of conduct contains subtle changes to the nationally-recognised Nolan Principles of public life, resulting in members being trained to believe that their duty is to protect the reputation of the Broads Authority, rather than to act in the public interest. 

What views do you have on whether they work collectively at the moment, for instance to share goals, encourage interest and involvement by the public and other organisations? 

The Broads Authority does not have a strong track record on collaborative working - especially with its stakeholders. In response to a recommendation of the recent peer review to improve its engagement with stakeholders, it abolished the formal stakeholder engagement body (the Broads Forum) and replaced it with a bi-annual meeting to discuss a single issue, decided upon up to a year in advance by the BA.  

What views do you have on their efforts to involve people from all parts of society, to encourage volunteering and improve health and well-being? 

Volunteering is an area that the Broads Authority would do well to encourage - particularly volunteer rangers. Unfortunately, however, offers by members to volunteer for ranger duty have been dismissed, usually on the grounds of health and safety or difficulty in arranging training. In an era of budgetary constraint, National Parks - and the Broads - have a big opportunity to train a pool of volunteers to assist in the peak season, as well as covering sick leave, holidays and so on.

What views do you have on the way they are funded and how this might change? 

The Broads, uniquely, is funded through a combination of a grant from DEFRA, and vessel tolls. Funding pressures - especially  on the DEFRA grant - have resulted in continuing attempts to divert an ever greater percentage of supposedly ring-fenced toll income into general overhead recovery. These pressures are unlikely to go away, meaning that alternative funding needs to be sought. Strategic partnerships and sponsorship opportunities with companies (both large and small) should be considered as a long-term funding source.

What views do you have on the process of designation - which means the way boundaries are defined and changed? 

The current Broads Authority boundary is designed to include the rivers, broads and the immediately surrounding landscape which can be considered "part of" the Broads. Proposals by the Broads Authority to increase their executive area to include the entirety of 93 parishes are likely to result in massive opposition from all quarters. Such proposals would result in unjustifiable expense, further fragmentation of district council responsibilities at odds with the direction of travel towards unitary authorities, and further disenfranchisement by expanding the planning function of an unelected quango. If the Broads Authority was to be enlarged, without accountability via full direct elections, then it would need to lose it planning function in favour of the district councils, and become a purely advisory body. It is suggested that the navigation and harbour function would also be better in the hands of a separate body set up for this purpose.   

What views do you have on whether areas should be given new designations? For instance, the creation of new National Parks or AONBs, or new types of designations for marine areas, urban landscapes or those near built-up areas 

The Broads is a marine area, and could benefit from a separate (elected) body dedicated to carrying out the navigation and harbour functions.

Are there lessons that might be learnt from the way designated landscapes work in other parts of the United Kingdom, or abroad? 

I have no particular knowledge of how other designated landscapes work in other parts of the UK or abroad.

Do you think the terms currently used are the right ones? Would you suggest an alternative title for AONBs, for instance and if so what? 

As I'm sure others have told you, the Broads is not a national park - though it shares many characteristics. Because of its unique status as a quasi-national park which encompasses a navigation, my view is that it should be continued to have its own designation separate from other National Parks and AONBs.

The review has been asked to consider how designated landscapes work with other designations such as National Trails, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), National Nature Reserves (NNRs) and Special Protected Areas (SPAs). Do you have any thoughts on how these relationships work and whether they could be improved? 

The danger of having so many different bodies whose responsibility overlap is firstly the obvious potential for duplication of effort, and secondly that those bodies often engage in mission creep, extending their responsibilities beyond their design scope. It is clear from having been involved in the Broads Authority as a member, that it is difficult and time consuming obtaining consents from many different bodies before carrying out works, and it would make sense in any geographical area for there to be a single elected "responsible" body which makes decisions, taking advice from external bodies such as the ones listed in the question.

Do you have any other points you would like to make that are not covered above?

My comments throughout are necessarily focused on the Broads and the Broads Authority, as this is where my experience and knowledge lies. I have lived in the Broads for my whole life (51 years), I run two Broads holiday companies, am a recreational boater and work in partnership with Suffolk Wildlife Trust to promote conservation and tourism. I was for 7 years a member of the Broads Authority's navigation committee, am passionate about serving the public interest and continue to maintain a strong interest in reforming the governance and accountability of the Broads Authority.

* Note re statutory duties. It's been pointed out to me that the Broads Act doesn't use the word “extend” in relation to the navigation area. The actual wording in the Act is “to take such steps to improve and develop it [the navigation area] as it thinks fit.” My interpretation of the word “develop” includes “extend” but I accept that alternative interpretations are available.

Monday, 21 January 2019

Peer Pressure

With all the flak which has been flying around recently, I thought it would be useful to set out my thoughts about the progress made by the Broads Authority following 2017’s peer review.

The Local Government Association peer review was “requested” in 2017 by the Broads Authority as a result of pressure from various quarters for the Authority to improve its stakeholder engagement and governance arrangements.

The resultant report had some positive and negative things to say, and made a number of recommendations. The strongest criticism related to communication and stakeholder engagement:
“Currently there is limited informal space for suggestions and constructive challenge which leaves some partners with the view that their input is not required until the final version is produced. They then feel it is very difficult to comment on something that has been signed off. This perception needs to be changed so that the Broads Authority is viewed as an organisation that values the contributions and views of all partners.”
This is not a new recommendation, in fact the previous peer review in 2011 made similar comments.

Other suggestions included putting more effort into understanding business and community needs, a better focus on the Authority’s relationships with other local authorities - including regular meetings, a member development programme and skills audit, and a more transparent process for committee appointments. It further noted the view from some stakeholders that the Broads Authority “was not open and transparent or accountable enough in how it spent public money”, and suggested that “there is a complex piece of work around stakeholder engagement that needs to be carried out.”

This report was produced in December 2017 - some 14 months ago. I attended an independently-facilitated meeting in January 2018 to discuss the report, with a view to considering and finding ways of implementing the recommendations. I don’t think I would be breaching any confidences by saying that it was an extremely productive and useful meeting, where a lot of listening happened, and everyone left with a feeling that here was a new beginning and an opportunity to put our differences behind us.

Unfortunately, the follow up meeting could best be characterised as an attempt by the then-Chair to re-assert her authority. The peer review might have made 7 recommendations, she said, but they were not all of equal importance. It wasn’t necessary to engage in the kind of collaborative process agreed by the previous meeting - all that was needed was for members to commit to a common purpose, and everything else would fall into place. Of course, nobody would disagree with the idea of a common purpose, so it went through on the nod and that was pretty much the last anyone heard of the peer review report.

The proposed “inclusive” workshops and meetings to implement the other recommendations were subsequently abandoned, and instead members agreed to establish a “Chairs Group” to provide “pastoral support” for the Chair. Just a few months later, this group has became the de-facto cabinet of the Broads Authority, and is already making decisions on behalf of the members - which it is simply not empowered to do, and neither can it be. As we are often told - the Authority is the members. It is the members who must make the decisions, not some executive committee.

Of course, it’s little surprise that the Chairs Group would emerge as a cabinet committee, because it was also (controversially) agreed to reduce the number of Broads Authority meetings from 6 to 4 a year. This was primarily a cost-cutting exercise, but the net effect is that it is now arguably impossible for the Authority to conduct its business efficiently and to make decisions in a timely manner, when meetings are so infrequent. Certainly, it’s hard to see how any of this contributes to the kind of better governance and improved member engagement envisaged by the peer review team.

Even more controversially, the Authority’s first (and only) step towards better engagement with stakeholders was to abolish the official stakeholder engagement group, the Broads Forum. This was a shocking piece of connivance, in which the Authority first ignored requests by Forum members to have the peer review findings included on their agenda, before summarily disbanding the group without notice when members arrived at that meeting. The forum was replaced with a twice yearly meeting to discuss a single issue decided months in advance by the Authority. Is this their idea of “a complex piece of work around stakeholder engagement”?

As to improved engagement with local authorities, to the best of my knowledge the only additional engagement with local authorities in the last year has been visits by the Chairman and Vice Chairman to various council leaders, asking them to remove their appointed members and replace them with councillors “more likely to observe collective responsibility”! And, when one of those members had the nerve to put her name forward as a candidate for Chairman of the Authority - under the new “transparent” arrangements for committee appointments - she was roundly criticised for being divisive, and those who supported her have been marginalised or removed.

Far from engaging in more inclusive and collaborative working, the Authority has adopted a siege mentality, where it continues to remove dissenting voices by any means possible. My own experience is well documented, but I now understand that other experienced and respected voices are about to “disappear” from the navigation committee, and other members have had their positions threatened for failure to “toe the line”.

There’s no clearer statement of intent than the Authority’s recent submission to the Glover Review of National Parks, which not only proposed absorbing swathes of Norfolk & Suffolk into the BA’s executive area, but also recommended the wholesale removal of all councillors and any other member with any semblance of democratic accountability - and did so without the knowledge or consent of the members. In doing so, they have managed to enrage MPs and council leaders right across the political spectrum, which is really quite an achievement. You have to wonder what they possibly thought they would have to gain from such an outrageous eleventh hour proposal.

In my next article, I will reproduce my own submission to the Glover Review, which I hope will be seen as a positive and constructive attempt to propose ways of building a better, more transparent and accountable, Broads Authority.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

To sue or not to sue, that is the question…

Following on from my dismissal from the Navigation Committee last year, I've been encouraged by numerous friends and supporters to seek a judicial review of the decision.

Having received advice from a barrister that the Authority’s behaviour was “outrageous” and that there was an arguable case against them, my lawyers sent a pre-action letter to the BA.

Their response covered no new ground, and continued to focus on whether I’d breached the code of conduct, rather than on whether what I’d said was true. To quote their response:
“The Claimant's breach of the Code arises not from the fact that he has concerns about the performance and/or conduct of officers, nor whether those allegations are incorrect or correct …  the breach of the Code arises from the manner in which the Claimant made his allegations and the tone in which they were made.”
The public resources which have been expended on pursuing this complaint, instead of investigating the misleading of members, must be truly monstrous. And the sanction does seem to be somewhat draconian, if all they were worried about was my “manner and tone”.

However, I’ve decided not to pursue a judicial review - for the following reasons:
  • It will cost me a huge amount of money, which can’t all be recovered even when I win.
  • It will cost the public purse tens of thousands of pounds - which JP might even try to argue should come from navigation funds.
  • I would be playing on JP’s home turf - the courts - where he is happy spending other people’s money.
  • The whole process would be lengthy and drawn out, during which time any discussion would be considered “sub judice” - again playing into the hands of anyone who wants to prevent an investigation into the misleading of members.
  • The most that could be achieved would be a finding that the Broads Authority had acted procedurally unlawfully by removing me - setting aside the decision and asking them to revisit it.
  • The process could only decide whether the Authority broke the law by abusing its complaint procedures to remove me, and could not be used to determine whether officers misled members (wilfully or otherwise), which is - after all - what this should have been about.
Anyone is welcome to read the documents linked above and, if you have a really strong stomach and time on your hands, you can read the whole bundle of evidence. But, for those who have a life, here is a summary of some of the more grotesque abuses:
  • The Broads Authority continues to deny that members were misled, in spite of the testimony of its own solicitor who confirmed at the Broads Local Plan examination that officers were wrong to claim that the river bank moorings had been proven abandoned through the courts.
  • The Authority instigated a secret barrister’s investigation into my blog prior to any complaint being made and then withheld critical evidence from him.
  • Throughout the complaint process, I was prevented from giving any evidence to prove that members were misled.
  • The Authority ignored the advice of its own barrister to deal with the matter informally, and refused to meet me or discuss possible resolutions.
  • The Monitoring Officer covertly altered the complaints procedure, removing his ability to impose sanctions, to ensure that the matter had to proceed to a hearing.
  • After the complaint was determined, the Monitoring Officer quietly changed the procedure back again, re-establishing his previous abilities.
  • The preliminary hearing panel consisted entirely of members who had voted in favour of making the complaint against me.
  • One of the members of the hearing panel accused me of slandering the officers before she had even heard the evidence.
  • A resolution to remove me was presented to the full Authority without notice and without permitting any debate or questions.
  • The Authority has subsequently denied that it prevented a debate, at total variance with the facts.
Two MPs have referred this affair to DEFRA - who have, as usual, responded that they don’t get involved in the day to day running of the Broads Authority. Instead, they suggested that I complain to the Local Government Ombudsman - apparently unaware that the LGO cannot deal with “personnel” matters such as this. 

Sadly, all this does is provide further confirmation that the Broads Authority is an unaccountable and unscrutinised quango, out of control and out of touch with its stakeholders. There exists no means of bringing an allegation of maladministration or malfeasance against this body, and DEFRA continue to take the view that due process must have been followed, as long as members appear to have been involved in decisions.

The majority of members, however, seem to have scant regard for the public interest, and instead seem entirely focused on their duty to “show leadership by promoting public confidence in the Authority” - regardless of whether this means persecuting whistleblowers and covering up the truth.