A prime job in the national parks’ world, chief executive of the Peak District National Park Authority, is about to be vacant. Jim Dixon, who has held the post with distinction since 2003, has decided to move on. The park has established the process for appointing his replacement but I have seen no mention of the involvement of Natural England (NE), the government’s adviser on national parks. Why not?
When I was a member of the Countryside Agency (CA) board from 1999-2006, I wanted to be useful. It wasn’t easy, but I look back with special satisfaction on the contribution I believe I made to national parks. The Countryside Agency had important functions in relation to national parks, and its successor, NE, has inherited them.
During my time on the CA board we designated two national parks (the New Forest and South Downs) and advised ministers on the parks’ funding formula. Each member was allocated to an English national park and we built a relationship with our park, learning about its concerns, getting to know the members and senior staff, and chairing the panels for the secretary-of-state appointments.
I was fortunate to be allocated the Peak District National Park for my seven years (I already knew and loved its countryside), and I made numerous interesting visits, attended authority meetings, members’ excursions and social events. I got to know the people and they always welcomed me. My particular joy was to stay at Losehill Hall, then owned and run by the park authority (but sold, alas, in 2011 and now a youth hostel—see my blog). I am not aware that NE has continued the CA’s excellent practice of allocating board members to parks—if it has, it hasn’t told anyone.
In 2003 the park’s chief executive, Christopher Harrison, decided to leave. On behalf of the CA I was pleased to join the appointment panel for Chris’s successor.
I worked my way through a batch of applications, took part (by phone) in the shortlisting meeting and spent two days at Losehill Hall to participate, with ten authority members, in the interviews and assessments, led by park-authority chairman Tony Hams. There were five candidates to be seen.
The final stage lasted from the early afternoon of Wednesday 16 April to the end of the following day. It was beautiful weather, unseasonably warm and a wonderful advertisement for working in the Peak District. I remember sitting in Losehill’s library watching Murray Cooper putting soil on the rosebeds and wishing we could conduct the whole exercise out of doors. At the end of the long day we painlessly reached our unanimous decision to offer the job to Jim.
But this time NE is absent. The authority has appointed a recruitment panel consisting of eight members with Richard Leafe, chief executive of the Lake District National Park Authority, aided by various consultants. The authority is required to consult NE before appointing a chief officer, but that doesn’t mean much. NE needs to give a strong message that it is still concerned about national parks.
It’s not too late for NE to ask to take part and I trust it will. I implore the park to appoint to this crucially-important post someone who really understands national parks and wild country and shares the idealism of those who legislated for them more than 60 years ago.
We don’t need a businessman or private-sector whizz-kid; we need someone who cares.