Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Great News - At last we have a National Park for the South Downs!

A National Park was first proposed for the Downs back in the 1930’s. In 1949 it was formally recommended as a National Park, along with 11 other areas, but we had to wait until 1999 before the government announced its desire to make the Downs a National Park. Even then it was still 10 years before we got there. Nobody could be accused of rushing into this!

However, here we are – 31st March 2009, near the 60th anniversary of the designation of our first National Parks, and at last we have proper recognition of the South Downs. We have our National Park.

See the map here:

and see the Secretary of State's decision letter here:

This is brilliant news. The South Downs Campaign, formed in 1990 at the initiative of the Sussex Wildlife Trusts (along with many others), has spent nearly two decades promoting the case for a National Park. In the end the logical weight of the argument, plus the support of the majority of people in Sussex (polls indicate up to 80% support) has eventually won the day. Furthermore the Secretary of State has agreed with the Campaign in most cases in relation to where the boundary should be drawn. We have a sensible-sized National Park that comprises the most important high-quality sweeps of landscape – not one just limited to one particular area.

With the announcement of a South Downs National Park it is a good time to review the benefits the decision will bring.

The South Downs Joint Committee (SDJC), who manage the South Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) is a good body but has significant shortfalls. Its funding is limited (it has to negotiate annually with 16 different bodies for funding, whereas a National Park Authority (NPA) receives funding direct from Government). It is not independent (being local authority dominated), has no planning powers, no duty to manage recreation, is not permanent and has less power for conservation than an NPA.

The NPA is a special type of local authority governed by elected members from local councils, parish councils and people appointed from the local area. An NPA does not undermine local democracy. (It is not correct to say that a NPA is an unelected, undemocratic body, and that its members are nominated by the Secretary of State.)

The NPA is centrally funded at higher levels than for AONBs. In 2008/09 the 12 National Parks received £46.23 million, while the 36 AONBs received £9.48 million. In addition the NPA will have a greater ability to raise funding from other sources. Significantly, these funds would be available permanently, allowing the NPA to work to long-term objectives, which the SDJC was not able to do.

An NPA will bring greater consistency and protection to the area. While there is no theoretical difference in the Government policy protection afforded to AONBs and National Parks, there is a crucial difference in the way that planning is delivered. With 15 Local Authorities each with their own plans and policies, Local Authorities struggle to make consistent planning decisions. A NPA has a single set of consistent planning policies for the whole area. Furthermore, the NPA’s planning powers are set out in legislation whereas the AONB body is purely advisory. In short NPAs are far more effective in the positive use of planning control. This does not mean a layer of bureaucracy designed to stop things happening. In existing National Parks there is a higher rate of planning approvals for higher quality development than in areas outside.

Economic benefits:
The South Downs is worth over £330 million to the regional economy. A NPA has a duty to foster social and economic well-being in pursuing National Park purposes and research has shown how important National Parks are in terms of the local economy and jobs. For instance surveys demonstrate that over half of a Parks’ businesses feel that National Park designation has a positive impact on their enterprise.

Public enjoyment:
An NPA is not an agency for promoting tourism. The South Downs already receives 40 million visits a year, more than any UK National Park and visitor numbers will rise regardless of National Park designation. An AONB body has no statutory duty to manage recreation, unlike an NPA. An NPA has a statutory duty to promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the Park’s special qualities by the public. Crucially, however, if there is a conflict between conservation and public enjoyment then it is required to give priority to conservation. In other words, an NPA is not an agency for promoting tourism but for improving the quality of the experience of people enjoying the National Park.

Environmentally sensitive farming:
An NPA will bring additional funding to environmentally sensitive land management and will be able to influence agri-environment funding at a regional level. National Park would not mean ‘nationalising’ the land; landowners will continue to manage their land. A South Downs National Park Authority is especially desirable because it would provide the focus and the mechanisms needed to conserve and enhance this internationally important landscape. It would bring additional resources to the area and allow the NPA to define long-term objectives in partnership with landowners. An NPA would have a strong voice in defining the priorities through its management plan and the new mechanisms being put in place to allocate funding for agri-environment programmes at regional level. Experience in the other National Parks has shown that NPAs are very well placed to drive forward schemes at the practical level.

Obviously we now have to move from campaigning for a national park to working together to make sure that it delivers on its promise. So, in some respects the work has only just started. Perhaps we can all now put the discussions about “whether or not” behind us and focus more on the issues affecting the Downs.

Clearly the Government should be congratulated for taking this visionary step by creating the National Park but on top of this there are a great many people who have pushed for a long time to achieve this status for the Downs. Of these I would like to pick out two for particular praise – Chris Todd, the Campaign Officer who has led the work for many years for the Campaign and, especially, Robin Crane, the Chairman of the South Downs Campaign. It was mainly due to Robin’s initiative back in 1990 that the people in the Downs were galvanised into action and, as a direct result, we now have a National Park.