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'être 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.