Is the South Downs National Park a good idea?

PUBLISHED: 13:10 21 November 2007 | UPDATED: 14:56 20 February 2013

Henry Smith, Leader, West Sussex County Council

Henry Smith, Leader, West Sussex County Council

Campaigners have been pushing for a South Downs National Park in earnest for more than a decade, but the idea was first raised back in 1934. Now, as a public inquiry into the idea draws to a close, it looks as if a final decision could be made nex...

Sussex Life

Henry Smith, leader,
West Sussex County Council

WHAT I want for the South Downs is the highest level of protection, for our conservation work to be well funded and for important decisions to be taken by local people.
Does that mean we need a National Park ? I don't think so. The recently-published Inspector's report busts a lot of the myths about a National Park:

• Supporters say that a National Park is massively popular - the Inspector says there is no reliable guide to the level of support
• Supporters say that a National Park will be better protected against development - the Inspector says the existing Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) has exactly the same protection
• Supporters say a National Park will be better funded - the Inspector says there is no guarantee more money will be available.

My view has always been that the best way to conserve the Downs was to convert the existing South Downs Joint Committee into a Conservation Board. The Conservation Board would:

• Be able to do everything a National Park Authority can do
• Leave planning decisions with the elected local authorities, and
• Would have had more locally elected people in charge.

I still think that this is the best way to protect the Downs. However, we have to recognise what the Inspector has said in his report. The Inspector criticised the Countryside Agency's approach to the National Park and rejected much of their analysis.

He also felt that the enormous area they had designated - much larger than the AONB - was way too big. He agreed with the County Council that if there was to be a National Park it should be based around the chalk ridge that runs from Winchester to Eastbourne. This is the area everyone thinks of when they think of the Downs - it's where the South Downs Way goes and includes landmarks like Butser Hill and Beachy Head.

The Inspector therefore recommended excluding part of the existing AONB around the Weald. This a rough rectangle of land bounded by Petersfield, Liphook, Northchapel and Petworth. A lot has been said about the exclusion of this area from the National Park, not all of it accurate.

The facts are these. Firstly, no one - not the Inspector, not Natural England, not the County Council - has recommended that if this area is excluded from the National Park it should lose its AONB status. Secondly, as an AONB its protection against inappropriate development is exactly the same as if it were included in the National Park. Arguably, the Weald will be better protected against inappropriate development.

This is because planning decisions will be taken by locally-elected people and not by a body stuffed with Whitehall appointees. Anyone who says the Weald will be built all over if it is not in the National Park is, quite frankly, scaremongering.

So how do we go forward? ...

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Dr Peter Brandon
President of the South Downs Society

South Downs is likely to become the newest National Park in England and Wales now that the public inquiry has agreed it in principle. But campaigners' hopes were dashed by the government in 1957 and the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (now the Campaign to Protect Rural England) proposed a scheme for a National Park for the South Downs as far back as 1934, which similarly fell on the deaf ears of the government.
Why has it taken so long to obtain National Park status for the South Downs - a place with an almost mystical meaning to Sussex people as one of the most iconic places on earth? And what are the pros and cons of the potentially conflicting issues involved, recreation and conservation?

Although recommended for National Park status in 1945 and 1947, the ploughing up of the land from1940 under the stress of wartime and after meant that the character of Downs had totally changed. A government commission rejected National Park status, the only one to be turned down.

Instead, the South Downs were made an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty which should have given them as much protection as a National Park. In reality it did not. AONBs are seen to be of lesser status than parks because they do not have statutory administrative powers and financial resources. In addition, management of AONBs is in the hands of local authorities. In Sussex, no fewer than 15 local bodies are responsible for its protection - the two county councils, the City of Brighton and Hove, Worthing and Eastbourne Borough Councils and the district councils.

Inevitably variations in competence, consistency, policies and resources arise, as the history of the Downs over the past 30 years demonstrates. It is startlingly clear that AONB status has not stopped the insidious, persistent corrosion of the coastal edge of the Downs by 'the death of a thousand cuts'.

A persistent, seeping tide of development, year after year, comes from the expanding coastal towns. This urban fringe development in the form of retail, business and industrial parks and out-of-town recreational centres has been eating into the Downs at the expense of the decaying inner part of towns.

You only need to drive from Worthing along the A27 to the outskirts of Brighton and then, say, go to London and Lewes Road in Brighton, to see the process at work. In short, the avowed motives and purposes governing planning for the protection of the Downs have been at variance with what has actually been done.

The decision of Communities Secretary Hazel Blears to allow a football stadium to be built at Falmer within the AONB on the grounds that it would rejuvenate east Brighton 'in the national interest' is the latest example of the long-continued corrosion of the Downs...

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