Gummer takes aim at parks

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ENGLAND'S seven national parks are heading for Conservative control through moves by John Gummer to install his own appointees to their governing boards. Critics believe this could result in more relaxed planning regimes in such beautiful areas as the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales, allowing more building and quarrying.

The Secretary of State for the Environment will change his own Environment Bill this week to increase the proportion of board members he may nominate from 33 to 48 per cent. Because other members are to be nominated from traditionally Conservative district and county councils, and there are enough rural Conservative members - still - this gives him de facto political control.

The Bill transforms the national park authorities, at present part of local government, into free-standing appointed bodies. Thus 4,296 square miles of England will be governed by what amount to new quangos.

Mr Gummer's office remains the ultimate planning appeal court, but traditional Tory voters in many areas within the parks want to see land used to create jobs instead of simply entertaining ramblers.

Mr Gummer has been lobbied hard by big Conservative landowners who felt squeezed by the parks' planning regime.

Mr Gummer's lead is not being followed by John Redwood, the Secretary of State for Wales, who has conspicuously exempted the three Welsh national parks from the changes.

Ostensibly Mr Gummer wants to strengthen the role of locals in park affairs, selecting parish councillors or "their equivalent". "We can assure you the parishes are already well represented," said the secretary of the Lake District National Park, John Toothill.

The main question for the amenity lobbies and for visitors is what parochial interests will allow by way of development. In Northumberland - where around 2,000 people live in the park - there is controversy over an ambitious plan by the Ministry of Defence to extend the military training installation at Otterburn to an extent equivalent to six football pitches, and 30 miles of new and strengthened road.