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2013 National Park for East Devon and Dorset: questions

This is the full version of the letter published in yesterday’s Sidmouth Herald questioning the notion of a new National Park.

A National Park?

Being in a national park sounds a nice idea, but is it what it seems?  I lived in one of the Devon National Parks before coming to Sidmouth.   Its Council is responsible for all planning, including listed structures, (though not for building control).  It has 22 members, not one of whom is elected, and who can serve for 10 years.  10 are government appointees, and the rest are largely appointees from various Councils.  There is no channel of accountability to the residents of the Park.

As a result, there were bizarre and inconsistent decisions, especially on planning, explicable sometimes as the result of individuals with fixed views.  “Keeping things as they are” even included preserving a building with a rusty iron roof.  On another occasion, a poultry producer whose customers could not get their increasingly bigger trucks to his yard was refused removal of his agricultural condition by the Park, but on appeal the Inspector found that though the condition should be removed, the Park had not followed proper process, which meant that the appeal had to be refused on a technicality.  The hearing included a 30-minute smokescreen address by an elderly gent who was the Park’s consultant surveyor, while the planning officer spent most of the time hunting for papers she did not have.  Total fiasco, without any redress.  There were many such episodes.

An unnamed spokesperson for the campaign group referred (in Pullman’s Sidmouth) to “the desirable development of greater administrative and policy coherence across the proposed area”.  In practice that means one-size-fits-all policies, which can result in policy and admin decisions that are highly unsuitable or irrelevant locally.  In terms of planning especially, we could be jumping from the frying pan into the fire by becoming surrounded by one.

There was no easy means of finding out what the Park’s money was spent on.  Its strategic and management plans, drawn up with huge expenditure on unnamed consultants as far as we could tell, were merely words.  For example, one was cleverly worded apparently in favour of one type of renewable energy, but with qualifications making it impossible in practice.  On the ground, inconsistent interpretations seemed to be the norm.  There was little perception among residents that the Park Council were interested in their livelihoods and living standards.  Farmers were hamstrung by diktats about their work, as were some of those trying to run other businesses.  Employment, population, food production and the like were not seen to be the Park’s concern.  Bureaucracy was rampant. The Park referred to has 105 employees, but recently got rid of three of its five park rangers to save money.

The “bring money into the local economy” phrase is much bandied about. However the Park referred to was not itself active in promoting tourism, which was done by other bodies.  It is my view that people visit Dartmoor and Exmoor because they are Dartmoor and Exmoor, and not because they are National Parks.

It could be that Parks other the one referred to may be better, and it would be wise to determine whether that is so or not.  In particular, the effect of Parks on settlements within and adjacent to them should be ascertained.  There are no settlements within Dartmoor or Exmoor Parks that have populations above 4,000, but some larger settlements have the Park Boundary right up to their built-up areas (Ivybridge, Minehead & Tavistock with populations between 11018 and 12056).  This can be very restrictive for the settlements, with yet another authority to deal with.  For example, Okehampton’s built-up area finishes just outside the Park boundary, but there has been much tension because the Park states that it is “within sight of the Park”, and considers it has a right to interfere.

A more productive approach might be for the Vision Group for Sidmouth to find a way of working with existing organisations to work up sound policies on future population structure, employment, and related infrastructure.  Demography, particularly the “age time-bomb”, is going to demand a lot of future management.

CW Burke, 29 June 2013