Most asked: Margaret Paren, Chair of the SDNPA

October 10, 2017

Next month’s Q&A will feature Matthew Bates from our Local Plan team. If you have any questions for him, please email newsletter@southdowns.gov.uk by 25 October. If there is a specific area of work you’d like to see covered, please email us using the same address.

Answering this month is: Margaret Paren, Chair of the SDNPA

How did you become the Chair of the South Downs National Park?

The 27 Members of the National Park Authority board elect their Chair annually. It is hard work but also very rewarding to shape the future of the nation’s newest National Park.

What’s involved in being Chair of the South Downs National Park?

The role broadly divides into two parts. First, I am an ambassador for the Authority and the National Park and that involves me in meeting with a whole range of interesting and influential people and organisations. Secondly, as Chair of the Board I lead the 27 Members in setting the Authorities policies, budgets and strategic direction as well as supporting and challenging the Authority’s executive officers to ensure that we reach robust, evidence-based decisions that positively enhance the National Park. It is a busy life!

Are you happy with the progress that the National Park Authority has made?

I spent 10 years campaigning for the National Park and we have greatly exceeded all the expectations we had at that time. The list is too long to cover here but designation as an international Dark Night Skies Reserve, our ground breaking work on Neighbourhood Planning, the innovative approach of our draft Local Plan, the launch of Heathlands Reunited, the rapid expansion of the shared identity and the runaway success of southdownsfood.org are all landmark achievements. And we can promise many more to come! . .

Do you, personally, think that there should be elections to choose all the Members of the National Park Authority?

No. Three quarters of our Members are elected county, district, borough, unitary or parish councillors. The remaining seven are appointed by the Secretary of State to represent the national interest after a rigorous, national selection process.
The last Labour government and the Coalition both reviewed the process for appointments to NPAs and considered in depth the issue of direct elections but the Coalition’s pilot proved unworkable. I think they were wise not to pursue the idea though I appreciate others may feel differently!

Do you feel that the Members of the Authority reflect the make-up of the National Park? Do you think it’s necessary that they should?

With only 27 Members it would be difficult to accurately reflect the 112,000 people who live in the National Park and the far greater numbers who visit or work here. The members do a great job but they need to be supported by a much wider range of supporters who love and care for the National Park. That is why we are committed to partnership working and stakeholder engagement. We have regular meetings with parish councils, landowners and farmers, conservation groups, user groups and others. Early on we set up the South Downs Partnership to provide a sounding board as we developed policy and our Members meet up with the Partnership twice a year.

What’s involved in being Chair of National Parks England?

National Parks England represents all nine NPAs in England as well as the Broads Authority and it is a great pleasure and privilege to lead the organisation. . NPE plays a valuable role in ensuring best practice is promoted across the NPAs; and the formulation of policies relevant to us all. Much of my time in this role is spent in meetings with Ministers across Whitehall, representing the English National Parks at meetings and events and talking through issues with my fellow Chairs and the staff of NPE.

As Chair of National Parks England what do you think are the major challenges ahead for our country’s National Parks?

Our major challenge at present is the exit of the UK from the EU. National Parks in England are cultural landscapes dependent for their character on the land management practices of their farmers and landowners. What follows on from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will be crucial to ensuring the best possible land management practices for the benefit of the National Parks. Shortly after last year’s vote NPE set up a group of farmers and land managers to consider what would be the best possible way forward for farming in national parks and their findings are now with Government. So we face major challenges but also a potentially exciting future.

Do you have a favourite place in the South Downs National Park?

No. The glory of the South Downs National Park is its variety: from the rolling chalk hills, the wooded ridges and valleys of the Western Weald, the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters to the lovely villages and market towns. I never travel in or around the National Park without thinking what a beautiful and very special place it is.