Tuesday 13 November 2012

The State of the South Downs National Park report

The South Downs National Park Authority became operational in April 2010 and it is interesting to look back to see what environmental organisations like the Sussex Wildlife Trust and the South Downs Network expected from the new Authority.  What did we ask for back in 2010 and has it now been delivered?

In order to know whether the Park is improving or degrading, there has to be a base-line survey.  You can’t tell if somewhere is getting better or worse if you don’t know what it’s like at the moment.  Therefore the first and most over-arching outcome we were looking for was a State of the National Park Report.  This is the essential first step against which to measure change. 

Two years later and this is exactly what has been delivered.  This State of the Park report is a major document covering over 140 pages that includes all the issues we then highlighted for which a baseline was needed.

This is a huge piece of work.  Exhaustive as the document is, this is really just the top layer.  It is supported by additional detailed information that is accessible on-line.  Even so, there are inevitably knowledge gaps and these too are highlighted.

A development over state of the environment reports of the past is an emphasis on the value of a healthy environment to people.  Nature has an over-riding value in ethical, spiritual and moral terms, but understanding its value to people in terms of the vital services it provides adds to, rather than detracts from, these deeper values.

Any report can only scratch the surface when assessing nature’s services but this document does, for instance, highlight the following:
  • 1.2 million people rely on drinking water from the Park and this is more likely to be drinkable if the wildlife habitats above it are in good health. 
  • 34,000 ha of woodland could be managed sustainably to provide heat for 9,000 homes while reducing carbon footprints and enhancing woods for wildlife.
  • Obesity costs Britain £5 billion a year but enjoyment of the environment by using the Park’s 3,300 km of public paths could contribute to the health of the nation.
You could add all sorts of other often immeasurable things like the cycling of nutrients, pollination, flood risk reduction, pollution amelioration, the simple enjoyment of orchid rich downland grassland or just using the South Downs brand in niche marketing.  The general message is the same – maintaining and improving the high quality environment of the South Downs is key to the areas economy and to the well-being of people in the area.  A statement of the obvious you may say, but still something that is often forgotten.

Valuing nature can be controversial, but it is not the same as “pricing” nature.  A better appreciation of the economic and non-economic value of the Parks special qualities should improve decision making.  If successful maybe this report might help reshape the economy as much as it might inform management of the environment.  As the report says, the “special qualities of the National Park are key to the future economy”.  The local economy will thrive if it supports and adds to these special qualities – not if it sees itself in competition with them.

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