Park authority launches legal action over ‘unfair’ treatment

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LEGAL action against the Government has been launched by Northumberland National Park as a result of ‘irrational and unfair treatment’ by Defra.

Last week members of the board for Northumberland National Park Authority met and decided to instruct solicitors to issue a letter of claim to the Secretary of State for the Environment for a proposed judicial review after the authority’s budget was cut by more than £1million.

The cuts have been described as a ‘salami slice’ and Northumberland National Park Authority is aggrieved that Defra failed to hold any meaningful consultation with the Park Authority before taking its decision on how to allocate the 21.5 per cent cash cuts in government funding over four years (over 28 per cent when allowance is made for inflation) across the 10 English National Parks.

In late January 2011, the Chairman and Chief Executive of the National Park Authority met the Minister responsible for National Parks to highlight what the Authority sees as weaknesses in the Department’s decision making. However, the Minister indicated he could not review the decision as there were no additional funds available.

Northumberland National Park Authority is issuing a letter of claim to ask Defra to go back and review with an open mind its decision to cut the Authority’s budget and to take into account the individual circumstances of each National Park Authority before budget decisions are made. It is also asking for Defra to reconsider its decision not to implement its fair funding formula for the next four years.

Chairman of the National Park Authority, John Riddle, said: “My board has been forced to take this action in order to ask Defra to apply the same care to making budget cutting decisions to the English National Park Authorities as government currently offers to other English local authorities like councils and police authorities. We accept the need for cuts to help rebalance government spending and income. All we want is for Defra to use a fair and transparent decision-making process.”

Chief executive Tony Gates added: “The action my members are taking is borne out of frustration. Northumberland is having to cut proportionately more services and staff than any other National Park, yet the latest assessment of National Park Authorities found us to be efficient and highly effective.

“It is unlikely that Defra will change its mind in time to reverse the need to make nearly one-in-three of the Authority’s staff redundant. However, my Authority believes it is necessary to challenge this decision in order to help protect this, the least-funded national park, from the consequences of an irrational decision.”

The Authority is implementing cuts of £3.4million over the next four years.

Its plan aims to maintain frontline services that are seen as essential and volunteer budgets, external grants and programmes are all being retained, as is the specialist knowledge that serves communities, businesses and partners in a wide variety of ways.

The main concerns include the potential closure of two visitor information centres at Rothbury and Ingram and the reduction in tourism services and Rights of Way maintenance.