This post is by Pooja Kishinani, campaigner at RSPB England, and Ruth Bradshaw, policy and research manager at Campaign for National Parks.
In 2019, the landmark Glover Review concluded that the boards that lead England’s national park authorities were “shockingly” “lacking in diversity” and “lacking in people who emphasise the purposes of securing nature and connecting people with our special places.”
Three years later, the government’s long awaited response to the review declared that “boosting biodiversity” and “improving public access” for all should be priorities for England’s national parks.
Five new appointments have expanded nature expertise
The government has announced five new appointees to the boards of the Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, Lake District, and Broads authorities. With the right membership, these boards could play an instrumental role in driving nature’s recovery, connecting people with nature and delivering nature-based solutions to climate change across great swathes of England. So has it, with these appointments, equipped national park authorities with the boards they need to deliver on these priorities?
Overall, this is an exciting set of appointments as all the new members have significant expertise in national park objectives including restoring the natural environment, and there are more women and younger members. This is a step in the right direction and we look forward to working with the new board members on the huge and important task of recovering nature in these special places.
It’s worth noting though that these appointments only make up two per cent of national park authority members in England. More members are needed with professional expertise and knowledge in nature conservation, given the scale of the nature and climate emergency. Without this, the authorities will struggle to deliver on their purpose to conserve and enhance wildlife. This is especially important for the Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors and the Lake District, which have all suffered severe declines in biodiversity. Natural England data, published by the Campaign for National Parks in 2018, showed that less than a third of protected wildlife sites in these national parks are in good ecological condition.
There’s still no improvement in ethnic diversity
Our excitement at these appointments though is mixed with disappointment as the opportunity has been missed to increase representation from minority ethnic groups. Much more needs to be done to achieve diverse boards. According to the Glover Review, in 2019, 32 per cent of authority board members were female, 0.8 per cent were from black, Asian or ethnic minorities and the average age was 64. National parks are for everyone but, despite the recent small steps forward, their boards still do not reflect this. Natural England estimates that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds are only one per cent of visitors to national parks, despite making up about 14 per cent of the general population. How can national park authorities address this when such a small percentage of their board members are from those backgrounds?
This highlights the systemic problems in the governance of these landscapes. There are 220 national park authorities members across England, so these issues cannot be fixed by a handful of new appointments alone. Under the current legislation, around 75 per cent of board members are chosen because they are local or parish councillors, not because of their expertise in wildlife conservation or the other purposes of national parks. Only 25 per cent are selected on merit, following open competition, and our experience is that only a few of those have professional experience in recovering nature. Although the recent appointments go some way towards addressing this, there is still a marked lack of expertise and skills related to nature’s recovery across the 220 members. This is a barrier to the national parks being able to deliver their objective of conserving and enhancing wildlife.
The government hasn’t listened to the Glover Review
To tackle these problems, the Glover Review recommended that board members should be appointed nationally, based on merit, and that achieving diversity should be a priority. It also proposed long term programmes to increase the ethnic diversity of visitors, akin to the Campaign for National Park’s Mosaic project, which helped connect community champions to boards. But the government’s response to the review has not taken forward any of these proposals.
There should be a more balanced representation of local and parish councillors and national appointees. At least half of board members should be national appointments made by the secretary of state. The government could use them to bring in many more nature champions who know and care deeply about the protected landscapes they govern, and to widen representation of genders, ages and ethnicities.
Importantly, appointments – both locally and nationally – should be based on skills and experience in national park purposes. Legislation should require that the board has such expertise in the same way as it does for other comparable bodies, such as Natural England and the Broads Authority. Merit-based appointments will inevitably drive better outcomes for nature and other objectives.
Not acting on these recommendations will hold back the ability of our national parks to take the bold steps needed to drive nature’s recovery across England, at a time when it has never been more urgent.