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Government disbands body set up to help protect national parks

Valuable asset: the Southlands national park in Warwick (File photograph)

An advisory body set up to protect Bermuda’s national parks from overdevelopment has been disbanded by the Government.

One former member of the National Parks Commission has expressed concern that planning applications could now be rubber-stamped by authorities without any input from the independent commission.

The 11-member body, which includes representatives from the National Trust, the Audubon Society, the National Museum of Bermuda, the Bermuda Zoological Society and the Bermuda Tourism Authority, is designed to represent the viewpoints and expertise of a broad range of stakeholders.

It was set up to make recommendations to the Government on any proposed development within the parks.

But in December, Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, the Minister of Public Works, wrote to members telling them that they were no longer required.

Colonel Burch wrote: “We will be making modifications and administrative changes in the first quarter of 2023 and I am choosing to take the Parks Commission in a new direction.”

He later accused commission members of acting beyond their authority.

In a letter to the Bermuda Audubon Society last month, Colonel Burch said: “The Parks Commission have been acting outside of that legislation and in spite of ministry attempts to get them to operate within the law there has been no progress.

“As such there is a need for legislative change which we are advancing and there will be no appointment of a commission until that process is completed.“

Yesterday a spokesperson for the Bermuda Audubon Society expressed alarm at the move.

The spokesperson said: “The embodiment and composition of the Commission is outlined in the Bermuda National Parks Act of 1986 and by failing to appoint a commission, Minister Burch is not following the mandates of the Act.

“The commission was established to serve an advisory role to the Minister responsible for parks and has specified roles and responsibilities in the evaluation process for any new developments and management plans for the parks.

“Their input is meant to ensure that the Bermuda Government is a responsible steward and guardian of our precious open spaces and is well advised on how best to take advantage of one of Bermuda’s most valuable resources, our national park system.

“Without this input, we fear that the parks will lose their essential value for the enjoyment and benefit of the people of Bermuda.

“The Government is embracing public/private partnerships to advance development in the parks. Although this may seem to make sense in the current economic climate, careful consideration must be given to how this will impact the open and natural environments of our national park system.”

The spokesperson highlighted concerns over recent plans to develop part of the 37-acre Southlands national park in Warwick.

The commission had previously been successful in blocking a proposal to build an events lawn and car park in the park, although developers resubmitted the application last November.

And last September the Government invited tenders for the development of “a new café, washrooms and beach equipment storage” on a portion of the park.

The notice added that the Government intended to add “public car parking spaces, picnic site, woodland walking tracks, events lawn and an historic Second World War gun battery platform” to the area.

But according to the Bermuda Audubon Society, no development can go ahead at Southlands until a management plan for the park has been devised.

The spokesperson said: “This unique and valuable property was saved from development by an outcry from the people of Bermuda and was finally designated a National Park in 2017.

A management plan for the park is currently being developed but it has not been completed or approved.

The spokesperson added: “Numerous developments have recently been proposed for Southlands. All of these developments are now being considered in the absence of a management plan and the absence of the National Parks Commission.

“We are very concerned that these developments will be pushed through without following the due process required by the law.

“The Bermuda National Parks Act 1986 clearly states that existing conditions shall be protected until a plan is in effect.

“In the absence of a Parks Commission, a management plan cannot be approved. And in the absence of a management plan, these developments cannot go forward.”

The spokesperson added that commission members – who volunteered their time and expertise free of charge – were “surprised” at Colonel Burch’s claim that they had acted outside their remit.

They said that the Minister had not responded to requests for further details about the allegation.

The spokesperson said: “Colonel Burch did say that they plan to advance legislative change and that ‘there will be no appointment of a commission until that process is completed’.

“We believe that the minister should reappoint the commission until such time the law is changed. We will also fight any legislative changes that might weaken the essential role of the Parks Commission and diminish the value of our national parks for the people of Bermuda.”

Asked why the commission had been disbanded, a spokesman for the Ministry of Public Works said: “In the course of the normal annual review of all Government boards and committees, which included the Parks Commission, it was found that the commission was regularly operating outside its remit.

“It should be noted that section ten of the Bermuda National Parks Act 1986 stipulates the commission’s primary function is as an advisory body to the minister responsible for Parks.

“The review is ongoing, and a public announcement will be made on completion. There won’t be a further comment at this time as the matter is still under review.”

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Published March 22, 2023 at 1:29 pm (Updated March 22, 2023 at 1:29 pm)

Government disbands body set up to help protect national parks

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