Finally, after years of campaigning and the government’s tacit acceptance of Julian Glover’s 2019 Landscapes Review, it seems that the government is giving way and agreeing to create another National Park.
This is great news on the surface, but in reality, is it just spreading the funds even thinner? Sadly, government funding for national parks has fallen by 40 per cent in real terms over the last decade, forcing national park authorities to reduce resources and trim back on services.
It is perhaps a good time to publish some basic facts about England’s newest park, the South Downs National Park.
The newest National Park
The South Downs National Park (thereafter the SD Park) stretches for 160 kilometres from Winchester to Eastbourne. It was given national park status in November 2009 by Hilary Benn MP, the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, in a ceremony at Ditchling in Sussex.
In common with the UK’s 14 other national parks, it is an area of ‘protected landscape’, which requires special protection from the point of view of landscape, ecology and wildlife. It is also recognised that these areas are of great importance for the physical and spiritual wellbeing of the general public, with the SD Park area being of special value because of its position within the densely-populated South East.
Check out the SD Park’s interactive map which shows the boundary of the national park with a highlighted border. In all, 117,000 people live and work inside the SD Park, more than in any other national park.
According to Statista (the business intelligence organisation), the SD Park was the most popular national park in Great Britain, receiving 2.31 million visitors in 2019 (pre-pandemic). This was mainly owing to the park’s natural beauty, accessibility and relative proximity to several populous areas of Southern England.
Open access land and rights of way
Although the first national parks were created in the 1950s, followed by several more in subsequent decades, it took longer to create one covering the South Downs, partly because objectors said much of the land was privately held, but also because the amount of ploughed land made access difficult.
Thankfully, this was partly overcome by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, which created a public right of access to mountain, moor, heath, down and common land in England and Wales as well as open access land. With the landowner’s consent, thousands of acres of open access land became available for walking and recreational activities. Along with county councils, the SD Park is responsible for ensuring that the rights of way are maintained and improved, providing the public with a vital resource for well-being and health.
One of our most important routes is the South Downs Way, one hundred miles of ancient trackways along ridges and escarpments, with stunning views and wide vistas to both sides. A scramble up the Downs might not be habitual for many people, but the Downs’ magnificent backdrop provides beautiful views inland to the weald and towards the sea, inspiring residents and visitors alike.
It is not surprising therefore that the South Downs have motivated many to ensure their continuing protection. The Friends of the South Downs have recorded a series of maps showing the open access land across the South Downs. The Ordnance Survey also shows open access land on its OS Explorer maps (1:25,000 scale, highlighted in light brown). This is also available on the OS Map app for your mobile.
Who runs the South Downs National Park?
The South Downs National Park Authority is a public body, wholly funded by the government, and run by a board of 27 members and a team of paid officers who manage the park’s affairs on a day-to-day basis from the head office in Midhurst. Unlike local councils, these members are not directly elected by the public but represent central government, district, borough and county councils and also the 176 parishes within the park.
The board is advised by a senior management team and members’ work is shared out via a number of committees. The authority itself also administers the Community Infrastructure Levy within the park area. Levies are charged for certain types of developments. Once these funds are collected, organisations within the park can apply for a grant to help fund local projects across the park.
Purpose and powers of the South Downs National Park Authority
The SD Park authority has a twin purpose: to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Downs, as well as to promote opportunities for the public understanding and enjoyment of the area – this in common with other national parks.
If there is a conflict, then conservation should take precedence. However, this must be balanced against the duty of the parks to foster the social and economic wellbeing of the local communities within the national park in pursuit of its purposes.
The SD Park’s only real powers are vested in its role as the planning authority. District or borough councils within the park’s area assist the park in handling the high number of planning applications received each year.
County and district/borough councils have a bearing on developments in the park, especially when it comes to roads. Other departments of government, such as National Highways and the Environment Agency, can have an effect on developments in national parks. Also, other organisations, such as water companies, can affect the ecosystems within protected landscapes. As a consequence, the national parks have their work cut out to succeed against many external pressures.
What is the future for National Parks?
The Landscapes Review reaffirmed the importance of national parks, but since then there have been threats brought about by proposed governmental changes to the planning system, though these have somewhat subsided for the moment. But it is important that organisations like the Campaign for National Parks, CPRE, Sussex Wildlife Trust and the South Downs Network continue their work to protect the South Downs, a vital habitat for many species of flora and fauna, as well of supreme importance for our own wellbeing.
It appears that the government has finally listened to campaigners’ repeated calls to strengthen the legislative framework for the protection of nature across England’s national parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs). Nature’s recovery can then be accelerated in our protected landscapes.
Let’s hope the government provides the money to achieve this!