Local Government Re-organisation and the Dorset National Park.
The Secretary of State has said that he is minded to approve proposals for a move to 2 unitary authorities: one for the conurbation and one for Shire Dorset.
Any reduction from 9 councils to 2 aims to improve efficiency, save costs, reduce staff and councillors and free up assets so as to improve the financial position and provision of services across Shire Dorset. The proposed Dorset National Park would be an asset and an efficient, close partner to the Unitary and help deliver a shared agenda for a thriving and successful Dorset. It would complement the Unitary’s work and boost Dorset’s economy.
The 2016 report for Dorset County Council “Dorset’s Environmental Economy” noted that the environment is Dorset’s greatest economic asset. To conserve, enhance and invest in this vital asset would be a key role of a National Park. It also has the statutory duty to foster the economic and social well-being of its communities.
The subsequent independent report “The Economic Opportunities, Benefits and Wider Impacts” of a Dorset NP (note 1) noted some of the economic benefits a National Park can bring to Dorset such as
new and additional funding (the South Downs NP has secured over £100 million to the benefit of its local economy and communities since designation in 2011); this in turn frees up some Council funds for investment in what Dorset communities need;
helping Dorset farmers and food producers to thrive in uncertain times;
the benefits of an internationally recognised National Park brand and the development of a coherent Dorset-wide tourism strategy to support our largest business sector;
working for thriving, sustainable communities through plans that reflect local communities’ needs and priorities.
A report from Bournemouth University reinforces these points. It notes the added value a National Park seems to have brought to the South Downs, and suggests a Dorset NP could add several millions of pounds annually to our rural economy and important tourism sector. It would put Dorset more on the international tourism map and also help promote local products and businesses.
The National Park, as the planning authority for its area, would develop and consult on a local plan that reflects what communities want and need. It could devolve planning case-work to the Unitary’s planning team and pay the Unitary to perform this role. There would be no duplication, no additional layer and the AONB would disappear. Just as the Tri-council’s planning operations have gained resilience through co-working, so the National Park and the Unitary would almost certainly share planning resource and expertise. All of Shire Dorset can benefit from the additional funding and expertise available. National Parks are not against development, and, through partnership working and consultation, approve a higher percentage of planning applications than other local authorities and do so more speedily. They have the specialist teams and long-term outlook to work constructively with landowners, farmers and businesses. 75% of NP Authority members are elected councillors and since 1/3 of these are from towns and parishes, local democratic representation and accountability would be increased.
Natural England’s next evaluation in 2018 will help provide further information to inform the wider debate on what a National Park can bring to Dorset, its communities, economy and environment.