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Options for Englands National Parks

January 3, 2011

It is disappointing to read the solutions offered by the English National Parks to the challenges set out in both the CSR and DEFRA’s subsequent settlement.  Rather than look at reengineering their businesses they are simply salami slicing the whole.  A job here, opening hours there, charges at this place and run this with volunteers (we hope).

 

There appears to be no long hard look at the whole business, the back office, options for shared services etc.  I understand that a small special purpose local authority would not want to join forces with neighbouring leviathans of unitary authorities, especially as they spent the best part of 40 years getting away from them.  As the much smaller partner in any shared service they would have to play entirely by big boys rules but they could get together and look at share services across English NPAs.

 

Modern business systems mean that they could share a whole raft of services whilst still retaining local delivery and governance,

 

There are 10 National Park Authorities in England.  That means there are 10 HR departments, 10 Finance departments, 10 IT departments, 10 Fleet Managers, 10 procurement systems, 10 PR and communications teams, 10 commercial, information and retail departments

 

In the search for delivered value business has moved to shared services, group together with similar organisations to buy services, use outsourcing to get better value, use group buying all the time.  Quality, value, whole life cost and price are all very important.  Even the outsourcers outsource!

 

As “National” parks it might seam sensible to some share some “national” arrangements that could and would deliver significant benefits and efficiencies.

 

If resources are well provided and procured through share national arrangements these can then be government, directed and delivered locally, in local colours, for local beneficiaries.

 

This is all made more frustrating by one Chief Executive stating that despite the changes being made business would continue as usual and there would be no variance in the services provided.  Everybody wants to hear this but very few will believe it.  At best this Park Boss looks naive.

 

The changes that The Coalition have made will have a profound effect across all of English society.  In areas such as National Parks, nature conservation, landscape protection and outdoor recreation the impact will be profound.  As with all government policy change, the key to success is to embrace it and get ahead.  The history books are littered with the corpses of local authorities and their residents who tried to buck central government.  The old urban metropolitan authorities such as the socialist republic of South Yorkshire fell to the reformation of Thatcher and the shire counties lost out to the zeal of Blair.

 

National Park Authorities are an interesting group of special purpose local authorities.  Created with an in-built tension between a National title and almost entirely local governance they have struggled to deliver on their implied promise from day one.  That promise is mixed up with our collective values about the brand National Park.  Its one of those ubiquitous global names like the Coke, The Pope and Al Qaeda!  When we plan to visit a National Park we expect to find beauty, space, recreation, clean air, clean water, full car parks, other visitors, somewhere to stay, to eat, to spend.  We also find a couple of other things in UK parks that we may not find in other countries; working landscapes and living communities.

 

These spaces are governed by two sets of local political governance.  The normal county, district or unitary authorities that individually will not cover the whole geographic park but will provide the usual services of education, highways, social welfare, housing leisure, etc.  These traditional authorities are complemented by the National Park Authority.  A single issues, special purpose authority responsible only for protecting the special characteristics of the park as described by their own enabling legislation.

 

The Parks are all small, in public body terms, around 200 people with a budget of £10 -15 Million.  They compete with each other, The National Trust and the normal local authorities for air space in the locality.  They cooperate with all the above and others on specific projects and in their own little ponds they are big fish.  The issue they now face is now do small special purpose public bodies continue to do the good work they have a hard won reputation for, when they are not core government business and have limited ability to respond to customer needs.

 

The Big Society agenda is not really a help, as The Parks have been using the BS approach for as long as I have known them.  Their undoubted success in delivering projects through partnerships stands as a long term case study of how having little but big ambitions can achieve massive results in the public sector.

 

The issue today is about representation and spanning the geographical and intellectual divides that keep these powerhouse’s of local innovation in check.  Delivering the goods on a local level has not protected their resource base.  The Parks attempts at banding together have been worthy but not successful. ENPAA the English Parks joint advocacy body does good work but in the same small pond that The Parks occupy.  The NGO sector will value what they do, as will DEFRA, when it suits them but they have not demonstrated any real understanding of how the game has changed or the modern delivery systems that are available.

 

It is time for the English National Parks to look at the solutions that are out there to join together and reduce the cost of support functions, which I turn will keep the customer focused elements available to meet the needs of the visitors, residents and business of the 10 great landscapes of England.

 

The future is complex as well as complicated.  The thinking that is needed to work through the options will needed to be both deep and diverse.  The solutions will be disruptive.  Business cannot be as usual.  All that I have learnt in the last six moths convinces me that The Coalition are very committed to significant change in how the UK goes about its daily life.  The big players in this, large local authorities, central government, the NDPB’s are all grabbing the reality with both hands and making it work as best they can.

 

The small guys and that’s the National parks are still looking a bit dazed and hoping they can stay under the radar (its worked in the past).  This time its probably a high risk strategy if all that embodied innovation is not to be lost.  Defence, especially long term defence is exhausting, its better to use the your energy to be creative, build wider alliances and move forward.

 

The future is bright if change is your business.

 

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