THE Dales-based Association of Rural Communities, set up to fight for greater accountability in the national park, has celebrated its 20th anniversary. Pip Land, editor of the ARC News Service, looks back on the past two decades.

AS a “baby” it was expected to die soon after birth, and yet the Association of Rural Communities has just celebrated its 20th birthday.

It was born at a time of deep distrust and anger towards the Yorkshire Dales National Park (YDNP), which was then a committee of North Yorkshire County Council.

Hundreds attended meetings organised by the association in late 1995 and applauded its founder president, Tom Knowles, when he told them: “Why should the national park committee consisting of so many non-elected people or those who don’t live in the area be allowed to take over our lives and the countryside we helped to create?

“I am not against the national park as such. I want to see this lovely landscape preserved so my own grandchildren can enjoy it. But…it is the lack of democracy and accountability that, I believe, leads to many of the inconsistencies we see.”

In an editorial comment in October 1995, the Craven Herald stated that the association would have to justify its complaints and offer solutions.

One of the ways it has done that is to call for justice for those affected by the grave inconsistencies in planning decisions due to an Interim Housing Policy which was later discredited.

In the early 1990s the small village of Hawkswick became a byword for inconsistent and unfair planning decisions when a barn conversion was subject to a very strict local occupancy legal agreement under that Interim Housing Policy while another, just 100 metres away, wasn’t. There were similar situations in other villages and not all have yet been rectified.

Those who attended the meetings in 1995 were so angry that they passed a motion of no confidence in the YDNP and its chairman, Councillor Robert Heseltine.

Cllr Heseltine had been the YDNP chairman since 1988 and was re-elected on a show of hands. The association campaigned for secret ballots and limited terms of office - and in November 1999 the authority introduced these for electing its chairman and vice-chairman if there was more than one nomination.

In that editorial, the Craven Herald also said that the association should help with improving the YDNP’s consultation procedures and public relations - and it has certainly done that.

For instance, the YDNPA now allows applicants and objectors to address the planning committee - something which the association called for back in 1995.

Since 2010, the association has posted ARC News Service reports on which do increase the transparency and accountability of what, since 1997, has been the autonomous Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority (YDNPA).

Since it was founded the association has asked the YDNP to provide better planning guidelines and to allow the conversion of more barns into homes for local young people and families.

The YDNPA is now, with its emerging Local Plan, introducing a policy of allowing the conversion of roadside barns accompanied by a planning guide - the “Barn Tool Kit”.

That Local Plan will also provide more security for existing tent and touring caravan pitches.

In 2007, Mr Knowles spotted that an officer, under delegated powers, had made a decision which could have destroyed the authority’s ability to fulfil one of its statutory purposes - to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of national parks by the public.

Mr Knowles’ initial letters to the YDNPA about changes at the caravan and camping site at Westholme near Aysgarth went unanswered and finally the association learnt that a planning officer had decided that the removal of tents and touring caravans was “of benefit to the natural beauty of the landscape”.

The way was clear for Westholme to become a site for luxury lodges creating the possibility of a dangerous precedent unbeknown to the YDNPA planning committee - until it was told by the association.

The association asked: “What will the authority do to safeguard the right of young people and those on lower incomes to have access to the national park by ensuring that the existing sites for touring caravans and tents are retained and, therefore, the Yorkshire Dales are not turned into a rich man’s playground?”

Dales folk still feel there is a tendency for incomers to have more success with their planning applications than local families - and on occasions the association has pointed out such inconsistencies to the YDNPA.

That is one of the reasons why the Association of Rural Communities continues to stand for the right of those who live and work in the national park to be heard.

It also believes they have the right to fuller, independent coverage of YDNPA planning meetings.