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England's green and pleasant land
3:58pm Monday 2nd April 2012 in Features
Britain's newest 'breathing space' drew its first breath exactly a year ago this month when the South Downs National Park was born.
The country's 15th national park is a great swathe of outstandingly beautiful countryside sweeping across the South East, an area of 1,600 sq km stretching from Winchester in Hampshire right across West Sussex and over to the chalky white cliffs of Beachy Head on the far side of Eastbourne in East Sussex. Within its landscapes are large tracts of ancient woodland, open heathland and rolling downlands featuring diverse wildlife including ancient beech and oak trees, the insect-eating Sundew plant, rare orchids, larks, grey partridges, the Adonis Blue butterfly and the venomous adder. Spanning its entire length is the South Downs Way, the only national trail completely contained within a national park.
What makes the South Downs different to most of Britain's other national parks is its existing population of more than 10,000 people and its market towns.
Its unique character brings with it the big issue of planning. The national park's Authority has to control and influence development within its boundaries, balancing that with a duty to safeguard the countryside and existing buildings and the needs of its population, rural communities and local businesses. The sheer size of the national park and the 8,000 planning applications it is expected to receive each year makes its Authority the eighth largest planning authority in Britain.
“New national parks do not come along very often and and each one is different, so there is no blueprint of how to manage them,” says Margaret Paren, chair of the SDNPA. “Planning is a clear example of this as we handle more planning applications than other national parks and we have had to develop policies to deal with the very special situation we are in.
“But there have been no major surprises so far.”
Mrs Paren is excited by the challenges that go hand-in-hand with the management of such an important national treasure. “We did not start off with a long-term strategy,” she says. “People wanted to be involved with a strategy so what we did was to sit down with planners and stakeholders and set out what it would be, and identify the special qualities of the national park. That's what's so exciting.”
This year, a new chief executive of the Authority has been appointed. Sussex-born Trevor Beattie, who began his career at the Department of the Environment and more recently has been chairman of the Land and Society Commission for the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, will guide the Authority through the next phase following its first operational year of running what he called “this wonderful part of England”. He said, “I was brought up in rural West Sussex and have lived close to the South Downs for most of my life. The environment and heritage of the South Downs are uniquely precious.”
So precious, in fact, that the Government has just awarded £608,000 towards a £3m plan to protect endangered chalk downland in the national park, putting the South Downs among the first of 12 of the Government's trailblazing Nature Improvement Areas. Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman says, “The exciting wildlife projects are the result of different organisations all working together with a common purpose - to safeguard our wildlife for generations to come.” And Mrs Paren spells out the importance of the national park on our doorstep: “South Downs chalkland is vital to the survival of rare and endangered wildlife and is relied on by millions of people to provide clean drinking water and valuable green space.”
When the South Downs National Park came into being on 1 April 2011, it joined an elite collection of protected landscapes, many of them so wild and remote they inspired descriptions such as “the most desolate, wild and abandoned country in all England,” as Daniel Defoe defined the High Peak in 1725. By the 19th century, romantic poets such as Byron, Coleridge and Wordsworth were seduced by the beauty of untamed countryside, Wordsworth waxing lyrically about the Lake District as “a sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”. But it wasn't until 1949 that the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed and 10 national parks were created in the 1950s, including the Peak District and the Lake District. After a 30-year gap, The Broads in Norfolk became a national park in 1988, and the National Parks (Scotland) Act of 2000 in Scotland saw the creation of two new national parks: the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond & The Trossachs. The last national park created before the South Downs was the New Forest in 2005, and the gathering pace of an ongoing campaign by the charity Campaign for National Parks to extend the Lakes and Dales national parks to the landscapes connecting the two could see the creation of Britain's 16th national park in the coming years.
Meanwhile, the day-to-day challenges of the one-year-old South Downs National Park continue to invoke passion in those devoted to the preservation of this area of natural beauty. Mrs Paren says, “We are moving forward and talking about what we want the South Downs National Park to be in 20 years' time.”