THE restoration of a historic park has moved a step closer despite environmentalists’ concerns it will become choked with cars.

The £5.8 million plans to return Stanmer Park to its 18th century roots have moved a step closer after gaining the unanimous support of the South Downs National Park Authority.

The plans were criticised by environmental groups for proposals to increase car parking spaces by 50 per cent with a new car park of more than 250 spaces at the park's heart.

The park already attracts 300,000 visitors by car annually but that could rise by 40 per cent by 2020.

The next hurdle for the project will come next week when the Heritage Lottery Fund board decide on the project's funding.

The plans include the restoration of the historic Lower Lodges entrance and doubling its car park, a new kiosk with cycle hire and café, a Green Drive for pedestrians and cyclists and the restoration of the listed Frankland monument.

The park's Walled Garden will be turned into a working garden with cafe, garden centre and education facilities while the Citypark depot will make way for the new car park and meadows.

Scores of objectors wrote to the authority raising concerns about the loss of trees and increased car parking.

Planning committee members welcomed the project but echoed concerns about car parking in the historical park.

But members also said that it was important the park had sufficient capacity for the growing number of visitors it would need to become sustainable.

Brighton and Hove City Council parks development manager Rob Dumbrell said the restoration project was designed to take Stanmer off Historic England’s at risk register and bring its heritage to wider public attention.

Steve Ankers, speaking on behalf of the South Downs Society and the Campaign to Protect Rural England in opposing the plans, said more car park spaces would encourage more motorists when the council should be focussing on sustainable transport options.

He said that commercial growth from a new café and garden centre would come at the expense of the enjoyment of the park.

Speaking after the meeting, Chris Todd from Brighton and Hove Friends of the Earth, said: "When we supported a national park it was to stop this sort of highly damaging development.

"The superstore sized central car park will generate a large amount of traffic in the park which will undermine its special qualities and could set a dangerous precedent elsewhere in the South Downs."

Councillor Gill Mitchell, Brighton and Hove City Council's environment committee chairwoman, said: “We are really pleased that the SDNPA supports our designs that have been influenced by public consultation to restore Stanmer Park to its former Victorian glory.

"Today’s decision is a major step forward in being able to bring the vision of the council and its partners to reality.”