Rural governance in the UK and elsewhere has undergone far-reaching changes, as partnerships and other collaborative approaches have emerged to address the challenges of rural sustainable development. The legitimacy of this 'new rural governance' is purportedly grounded in deliberation between stakeholders, but this is problematic-it is not clear how 'legitimacy' is to be understood now that the criteria of legitimacy appropriate to representative democratic government are not obviously applicable. Here we propose an analysis of legitimacy as situated-that is, given meanings by actors in specific contexts-and continuously constructed through discursive processes, where it also plays a reciprocal, highly political role in shaping those processes. We use this framework to analyse decision making in three distinctive deliberative arenas for sustainable transport policy making in the Peak District National Park in England. Legitimacy claims were found to be significant elements in each arena, but no single, overriding legitimacy discourse was successfully established. Instead, each arena's legitimacy was a hybrid, justified through a complex mix of competing rationales. While no single conclusion can be drawn about the legitimacy of 'the new rural governance', the strongest legitimising principles remained those grounded in representative democracy. In contrast, the 'new' approaches rely on deliberative norms accepted only by (some of) the relatively limited circle of stakeholders directly involved. More generally, if such norms are to become accepted principles for legitimate rural governance, then more work is needed to discursively establish their acceptability both in networks of governance and with the wider population. © 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
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