The South Downs story
PUBLISHED: 15:58 16 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:42 20 February 2013
It was a month of celebration when the South Downs was granted National Park status in March. After just three months of planning and decision making the finer details are coming together. Jim Keoghan talks to those involved about the story so far
It is said that everything comes to those who wait. In the case of the South Downs National Park, you could add that some people have to wait longer than most.
The recent creation of the South Downs National Park in March marks the culmination of a campaign that stretches back to the 1940s.
Its certainly been a lengthy wait but groups such as ourselves, who have long campaigned for a National Park, are very happy with the eventual outcome, says Jacquetta Fewster, Director of the South Downs Society.
A joint effort
With an area of 1,600 square kilometres and a 100-mile stretch from Winchester in the west to Beachy Head in the east, the new National Park represents the final recognition of how important this part of the country is.
But, as Jacquetta explains, without the tireless work by the South Downs Campaign (SDC), a collective of 160 local organisations, it might never have happened at all.
Since its foundation in 1990 the SDC, which comprised of groups such as ourselves, The Ramblers Association and CPRE, as well as local district, borough and parish councils, worked determinedly both in persuading the former Labour Government to look at the case for National Park status and then presenting the case for it during the lengthy inquiry process.
Ups and downs
Unlike Hampshires other National Park, the New Forest (established in 2005), when it came to the South Downs the process of creation was much more protracted. Despite Natural England recommending its formation as early as 2003, a boundary dispute over the Western Weald and concerns over the parks legal status ensured that the inquiry process took much longer than was originally envisaged.
As it stands today, the recently created South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA), which comprises of members appointed by both central government and local authorities, has until April 2011 to organise itself and its responsibilities before taking over full control of the National Park.
Despite its infancy, the SDNPA has already made some key decisions. One of the most important of these concerns planning. As of next April it will become the sole planning authority for the area. This will make the SDNPA one of the largest planning authorities in the country both in terms of the number of applications per year and the geographical area covered.
Although it will have final responsibility for planning, Andrew Shaxson, Chair of the Authoritys Planning Committee, says that in reality the existing local authorities will continue to play a key role.
We considered a number of options, taking account of comments from local residents, landowners and other interest groups, as well as the current 15 local planning authorities. The decision taken to, in principle, delegate most of the planning service back to the local authorities under our guidance, will enable the SDNPA to work strategically, focussing on the most significant and major applications likely to have the greatest impact on the National Park.
According to Interim Head of Communications and Engagement Liz Ballard, the SDNPA have also been looking at what kind of service they can provide to the community.
The South Downs National Park has by far the largest population living within its boundary and is more intensively farmed compared to the other UK National Parks. Because of this, many local people have highlighted to the SDNPA the importance of direct contact and delivery on the ground. In response, we have agreed to take on the National Park Delivery Service. This means that the Authority will now develop an on-the-ground service to engage directly with the wider community. The service will be a responsive first point of contact, engaging with local communities on parish plans and local projects, providing advice, support and grant information to land managers, farmers and businesses, engaging with visitors, working with volunteers and generally communicating and enthusing people about the National Park.
Walk this way
Those who enjoy walking in the South Downs will be pleased to learn that the SDNPA has also made a commitment on the issue of access, specifically rights of way.
What we plan to do is work with our partner Highways Authorities to develop a joint approach to access, rights of way maintenance and improvements across the National Park says Liz Ballard.
Although the SDNPA has quickly and effectively dealt with many of the immediate issues it faces, Christopher Napier, chairman of CPRE Hampshire, thinks that challenges still remain. Looking ahead there are a number of areas where we will be seeking improvements. Among the more important of these are building character in our towns and villages so they become special to the new National Park, removal of unnecessary and intrusive signage and other clutter along our roads, and improving tranquillity by reducing traffic and aircraft noise and putting more pylons underground.
One problem that concerns everyone involved with the National Park is how the Authority will tackle issues such as these set against a background of a tighter financial climate. The countrys National Parks are funded by central Government and this year as a whole they will receive 48.8million from DEFRA. In a time when the Government is looking at ways to reduce spending its likely that those departments such as DEFRA who do not have their budgets ring-fenced could face significant cuts. Where this leaves the National Park is unclear. In many ways the South Downs is unfortunate to begin its life in such an unfavourable financial climate, certainly compared to that enjoyed by the New Forest during its creation.
Although many challenges remain, Jacquetta Fewster feels that the area is still in a much better position than it has been before. I think what you need to bear in mind is what the SDNPA has replaced. Previously the system was more fractured, whereas now there should be a unified approach to the South Downs.
Agencies and various groups who have a stake or an interest in the Downs now have a single authority as a point of contact, which will make communication easier. To date the SDNPA have been very inclusive of outside groups and I think this bodes well for the future. There will always be challenges but I think now we are better positioned to tackle them.
South Downs the facts
Population: 108,000 people live in the South Downs National Park.
Highest point: Blackdown Hill at 280 metres.
Number of Conservation Areas: 14.
Total coastline: 14km.
Visits per year: 40million.
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