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South Downs National Park - Background
|The Government wants the South Downs to be a national park|
Plans to give the go-ahead to create a national park in the South Downs were finally unveiled in 1999 by the Government.
Campaigners had waited 50 years to hear the news, but it will be 2004 at the earliest before their dream can become reality.
The South Downs have always been regarded as a special part of the English countryside. Two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sussex Downs and East Hampshire, currently cover the area.
National park status was first proposed in the Thirties, put on hold during the Second World War, hung in the balance during the late Forties and finally abandoned in the Fifties.
That decison was based on the assessment that ploughing of the downland due to intensive farming during the Second World War had removed much of the recreational potential from the countryside.
There has subsequently been great pressure on the Downs from further changes in agricultural practice, from recreational use and from development.
When it asked the Countryside Agency to look again at the designation of a South Downs National Park, the Government highlighted the importance of providing countryside recreation opportunities close to where people live and called for more of the downland to be restored.
A war of words about the merits of national park status for the South Downs has raged for decades between conservationists and councils.
A lengthy consultation process and the anticipated public inquiry will ensure it continues for some time to come.
Environmental lobby groups have campaigned for a park for years, saying the famous landscape and its rare habitats for birds, animals and insects were being destroyed by intensive farming and development.
|Worthing MP Peter Bottomley says a national park is unwelcome|
But the decision to finally grant their wish was greeted with fury by many councils in Sussex, unhappy about planning decisions being taken out of local hands. Fourteen councils lobbied Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott not to create a national park.
Opponents say park status will not deliver the desired protection for the countryside, predicting increased visitor numbers will cause traffic congestion and erode the chalk downland.
Worthing Tory MP Peter Bottomley echoed the opinion of many colleagues when he said the decision was "not welcome in Sussex".
Mr Bottomley said: "Democratic representatives at county and local level wanted a conservation board that would be more democratic and better for the South Downs."
Meanwhile, West Sussex County Council promised to "fight vigorously" against the park which it said would be a "disaster for local people".
The most outspoken opponent of the proposals, the county council accepts the need to protect the Sussex landscape but says it would be better achieved through a locally-agreed authority that did not wrest planning control away from democratically accountable councils.
The South Downs were originally earmarked for park status in 1947.
Eleven national parks were created in England and Wales between 1951 and 1989:
But in 1949 when the first national parks in England and Wales were created, despite being a hot tip to join the Peak District, Dartmoor and the Lake District, the South Downs never made it.
The Downs remain the only area identified as a potential national park still without the protection it would bring.
Now the park is set to go ahead as one of two new national parks for the millennium - the other being the New Forest.
The Government says a national park will raise the area's status and provide greater access to funding to ensure the Downs are protected and continue to be regarded as a national treasure.
A national park authority will be set up to encourage co-ordination and joint action to protect the Downs and to take action itself where needed.
Three quarters of funding for national park authorities comes from central government with the remaining 25 per cent provided by local authorities.
Park authorities can also get access to other grants and European funding to boost their resources.
Almost £21 million in government grants is currently being shared by the 11 national park authorities already operating in England and Wales, which have a total budget of just under £28 million.
|A public inquiry is expected to delay the creation of the South Downs National Park until 2006|
The Countryside Agency is responsible for creating the park and the park authority.
Having identified the park's draft boundaries, the agency will hold a public consultation on its proposals and the options for managing the park. This takes place from November 2001 to February 2002.
This will be followed in April 2002 by consultation with all relevant local authorities, from county to parish councils.
This is due to end in June 2002 when the Countryside Agency will submit its designation order to the Government along with advice on the powers and shape of the park authority.
The Government will then consider any objections made during the consultation period and, most likely, will call a public inquiry.
For conservationists, the national park cannot come soon enough. Pressure from development, especially from housebuilding, farming and tourism, threaten the long-term future of the Downs.
As an AONB, the Downs are not given the same level of protection they would have as a national park, but placed where they are in the South East they already perform many of the functions of a park.
|The Long Man of Wilmington is one of the Downs' many attractions|
An estimated 35 million people visit the South Downs every year, visiting honeypots like the Seven Sisters Country Park or walking the remoter parts of the South Downs Way.
The Government regards national park designation as the highest status of protection of landscape and scenic beauty.
By law, national parks must conserve and enhance their natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage, and promote opportunities for public enjoyment and understanding.
Major developments in national parks should be in the public interest and normally include an assessment of:
- The need for the development in terms of national considerations, and the impact on the local economy of allowing or refusing it
- The cost and scope for developing elsewhere
- Any detrimental effect on the environment and the landscape and the extent to which it should be moderated
As an AONB, the South Downs are covered by weaker protection laws.
The primary objective of AONBs is conservation of the natural beauty of the landscape.
Environmental effects will be a major consideration in planning decisions and it would normally be inconsistent with the aims of AONBs to allow major industrial or commercial development.
Only proven national interest and lack of alternative sites can justify an exception.