A snapshot in time

This week has seen the launch of the State of the National Park report.  Published by the South Downs National Park Authority it is an attempt to record everything that contributes to what makes the South Downs special.  It could be the landscape beauty, the health of our local wildlife, or the strength of community spirit and enterprise.  All of these things and more work together to create and shape the South Downs that we know and love today.

The Park’s special qualities were defined by the various communities with an interest in the Downs earlier in the year.  This report is the next logical step in the process in attempting to capture the health and robustness of these special qualities.  The stage after this, which has already begun, is to work up a Management Plan which starts to tackle some of the problems or deficiencies identified by this report.

While the report has been published, in some senses it is far from complete.  Within it there are numerous data gaps and requests for more information.  However, this does not undermine its validity, more highlights the issues and difficulties in collecting and monitoring data over such a large area and on a wide range of topics.  In time, it will be necessary to fill these voids and it may be that this information has already been captured by someone.  However, there may be instances where the Park Authority will need to invest in data collection or analysis.

In the meantime, the current report is well worth a read and no doubt will be an invaluable tool as time progresses.

Will Anyone Notice?

A couple of weeks ago, a consultation was quietly started on the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the revocation of the South East Plan.  Enough to send most people off in a stupor before they’ve finished the headline!

Current Government policy is to simplify planning by stripping away regional governance and plans, and by the introduction of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).  Therefore this is just another step along that path.  Given it is going to happen, does it matter?  Will it make any difference?

These are the questions that the SEA is looking to assess, to see whether the Plan should be revoked in total or whether particular policies should be kept in place, even if only temporarily.

The South Downs are in an odd position as when the South East Plan was written the area was not yet confirmed as a National Park and so did not have a proper policy as the New Forest did.  Instead it was covered by the policy on Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).  However, since the AONB policy no longer applies to the South Downs, it now being a National Park, it is harder to make a case that it would be any better or worse off with or without the South East Plan.

Where there might be concern about the loss of the South East Plan is in the New Forest and the remaining 9 AONBs in the South East.  Here the Plan was strong on the concept of ‘conserving and enhancing’ these landscapes and on ‘having regard to their setting’, the latter an important point picked out by the Inspector as justification for having regional policies on nationally important landscapes.

The critical test is whether these policies are covered by the NPPF.  This does indeed have policies on landscape and specific mention of National Parks and AONBs.  While it does talk of ‘conserving and enhancing’ and ‘protecting and enhancing’ ‘valued landscapes’ in paras 109 and 156, in para 115 when it talks of nationally important landscapes it only talks of ‘conserving’ them; ‘enhancement’ is not mentioned.  Therefore there is a certain ambiguity as to whether ‘enhancement’ of National Parks and AONBs still has the same priority under the NPPF as under the South East Plan.

In addition, there is no mention of the importance of the setting of nationally designated landscapes.  The only time setting is considered important is for heritage assets.  Therefore, this would suggest that the region’s nationally important landscapes would be worse off without the South East Plan.

While the SEA does pick up a minor policy difference between the mean low water mark and mean high water mark for AONBs, it is silent on these other issues.  This is of concern and hopefully people will respond to the consultation if only to make this point.  As to whether it will be noticed or not will depend on development pressures around the edges of our nationally important landscapes and the weight given to protecting the environment.  Only time will tell…

The consultation ends on Thursday 6 December, 2012.  You can send comments to:

Email: SEAConsultation@communities.gsi.gov.uk

Post: Environmental Assessment Team, Department of Communities and Local Government, Zone 1/J6, Eland House, Bressenden Place, London, SW1E 5DU

 

Twyford Down Anniversary

The M3 cutting through Twyford Down

This weekend sees the 20th anniversary of the controversial construction of the M3 through Twyford Down, now part of the South Downs National Park.  To mark this anniversary, the Campaign for Better Transport is supporting a rally on Saturday (29th Sept) on St Catherine’s Hill, overlooking the site.

Once revered for its natural beauty and cultural past Twyford Down is probably best known nowadays as a symbol of the folly and destructive nature of new roadbuilding.  It was where the Government’s roads programme was challenged in a way it had never been challenged before.

It set in motion a reappraisal of not just roadbuilding but the way we view travel and its interaction with planning.  But given all this happened 20 years ago, are we in danger of forgetting the lessons of the past?  As the current coalition Government grapples with the economic crisis there is increasing talk of building large infrastructure projects to stimulate the economy alongside relaxing planning laws.

Of course Twyford Down wasn’t the only place damaged by the Government of the day.  The tragedy of Brighton & Hove bypass (built in the 1990s) was that the Government Minister ignored the Inquiry Inspector’s recommendation that much of the road be tunnelled.  The one exception being at Southwick Hill where National Trust ownership provided the Department of Transport with a real headache unless it was prepared to put the road underground.

Other trunks roads have also impacted upon the South Downs such as the A3, the A27 Lewes bypass and more recently the A27 Southerham to Beddingham improvement.  Latterly, more care has been taken to integrate new roads better into the landscape.  But is that the answer?  Roads have a far greater impact that their immediate visual impact.  The traffic using them generates noise and there are precious few tranquil areas in the South East.  Building more road capacity can increase traffic levels, not just on the roads themselves but on surrounding areas.  Then of course there’s air pollution and climate change.

There are plenty of schemes remaining on politicians’ wish lists, particularly along the A27.  If built they would lead to a significant increase in traffic passing alongside and through the National Park.  Meanwhile the coastal rail service appears to have received comparatively little investment, apart from the compulsory lick of paint every time the franchise is renewed.

So on the 20th anniversary of Twyford Down, let us remember the mistakes of the past so we can tread a more sensitive path in the future.  The landscape is very different to the 1990s, but politicians still seem to favour the big infrastructure project over community based initiatives, even when the latter often offer better value for money.

Down Your Way

This year has seen the 40th anniversary of the South Downs Way.  It is one of only 13 National Trails which exist in some of England’s finest countryside and the only trail to be wholly within a National Park.  Over the years it has been a great success, with many thousands of people using it every year on foot, bike or horseback.  Indeed it is one of the most popular National Trails, being easily accessible and running along the spine of the South Downs from Eastbourne to Winchester with great views along its whole length.  At weekends it can became particularly busy and is popular with charities and events organisers.

The official South Downs Way National Trail guide was written by Paul Millmore, one of the first people in modern times to call for a National Park, and a key member of the South Downs Network.  He’d just completed his latest revision before his untimely death earlier this year.  The guide provides a wealth of information about the area, its history and local contacts and facilities.

As to what the future holds for the South Downs Way is uncertain.  It undoubtedly is popular and is good for people’s health and well-being, but it also supports the local economy.  It draws people to the area who then spend money in shops, pubs, on campsites, farms, B&Bs, hotels, etc.  Yet with a number of pubs and other local community assets under threat from property speculators, will the trail remain the attractive proposition it is now if these are lost?  That’s not to say things are perfect and cannot change, but the future viability of the South Downs Way and community facilities nearby are somewhat interlinked.  Therefore it is imperative that both are taken seriously and properly supported at all levels.

At a national level, there appears to be uncertainty over the future of Natural England, the champions, if you like, of National Trails at present.  At the same time, Natural England is looking at devolving the responsibility of National Trails to local authorities.  With the South Downs Way being wholly within the South Downs National Park that may be less of an issue, but funding could still be a problem.  Overall funding levels may reduce and unless the National Park Authority is given the money directly, money spent on maintaining and promoting the trail may fall considerably.

While the future is uncertain, with the advent of the National Park and the current popularity of the South Downs Way, this National Trail, at least, is likely to be around for us all to enjoy for some considerable time yet.

Rampion draft Environmental Statement disappoints

The South Downs Network has responded to the consultation, which ended yesterday, on the draft Environmental Statement for the proposed Rampion offshore wind farm to express its disappointment and concern at the lack of good quality information within in.  The lack of data was a frustration with the first consultation earlier in the year and reassurances were received that this would be resolved with the publication of the draft Environmental Statement.

However, this has not been the case and detailed information on alternative cable routes is still missing and the quality and number of the photomontages and other data inadequate to properly assess the visual impact on the South Downs National Park.  The Network is particularly concerned that the effect on the Heritage Coast appears to have been downplayed and that mitigation of, and compensation for, any visual impact is not even discussed.

There are also issues around how the cable route goes through the South Downs Way and the importation and disposal of materials for the haul road, amongst many other concerns that have been raised.  In all, this has led the Network to the conclusion that E.ON has not fulfilled its legal duty, under Section 62(2) of the 1995 Environment Act, to have regard to National Park purposes.

The Network hopes that E.ON will take stock and work with local communities and organisations to improve the draft Environmental Statement, which should include discussion of possible mitigation and compensation measures.  This may require it to hold back from formally submitting its application in October but if that leads to a better outcome all round then that can only be of benefit.

2050 vision for Park approved

The South Downs National Park Authority has taken the first but important step in mapping out its vision for what the South Downs will look like in 2050.  While containing elements of motherhood and apple pie, the vision contains some clear statements about important aspects of how the Park should look and operate and how people will interact with it in 40 years time.

The vision will now guide how the Management Plan is developed and how the Park Authority prioritises its work.  It sits alongside the already agreed South Downs’ Special Qualities.  The South Downs Network hopes that the Park Authority will shortly publish its State of the Park report, in effect an audit of important features within the South Downs, that will help create the benchmark for judging the success or failure of the Management Plan.

For some, the Park Authority appears to have been slow to get going, but that is only natural when starting from scratch.  It has to develop its own priorities and strategies, and when done in an inclusive way that takes time.  Hopefully, the Management Plan will be completed next year and the Local Plan shortly after that.  Then the Park Authority can hopefully focus more on delivery than policy development and change on the ground will start to become more evident.

However, we must remain patient.  It has taken 80 years to achieve a South Downs National Park, so we must not fret over the relatively short time it is taking the Park Authority to get its house in order.  Equally, change does not come quickly as can be seen by how long it takes to re-establish species rich chalk grassland and other important habitats.  The same is true when challenging established ways of working and forging new partnerships.

In a sense this vision marks the start of something new, helping to shape a new mindset for the next 40 years.  At a time of economic gloom and international upheaval, the work of the National Park Authority offers us hope for the future: the glimse of something different, something better.

Public urged to back South Downs farmer

The South Downs Network is urging the public to get behind Peter Knight, Estate Manager for the Norfolk Estate in Arundel who recently was selected as South East regional winner in the RSPB Telegraph Nature of Farming Awards.  He has now made it through to the final four in the national competition, from an initial 350 entrants.  Judges were not only impressed by the way that Peter manages the farm to the benefit to wildlife but also the way that he promotes the benefits of farming this way to others.

Who wins the national competition is decided by a public vote which is open from now until September 5.  You can vote by visiting www.rspb.org.uk/farmvote, calling the RSPB on 01767 693680 to request a FREEPOST postal voting form, online via The Telegraph, or at country shows throughout the summer.  Everyone who votes in this year’s competition will be entered into a prize draw to win a luxury break for two people at Ragdale Hall worth over £500.

The South Downs Network is urging the public to get behind Peter and the Norfolk Estate in recognition for the all the work he has done to promote and accomodate wildlife on the 1240ha arable and sheep farm in West Sussex.  It has been under Peter’s management for the past 24 years, during which he has supervised the change from a fully production based system to a commercially managed estate that has conservation at its heart.

The Estate manages over 1000ha of arable farmland, which benefits skylarks, fieldfares, corn buntings, grey partridge, redwings, harvest mice, brown hares, short-tailed voles and a variety of insects, all of which have increased in significant numbers with the implementation of Natural England’s agri-environmental schemes.

Lapwings, barn owls and buzzards are flourishing across the whole Estate and the woodland is home to two rare species of butterfly – the Duke of Burgundy and the Pearl-bordered Fritillary.

For more information about the competition see the RSPB’s website, but don’t forget to vote!

Black Hole in the heart of Amberley

A pretty village situated on the South Downs Way, one of the most popular National Trails, at the centre of England’s newest National Park.  What better place could you imagine to run a profitable pub?

Yet local people in Amberley are having to fight to keep their pub, the Black Horse, some of whom see it as a fight for the very future of village.  The trouble started in March when the pub closed and the owner, a national chain, started selling off various pubs around the country because it was in too much debt.  Unfortunately, the Black Horse appears to have been sold to a property developer who wants to convert it into housing, rather than someone wanting to run it as a pub.

This has led to local people fighting a spirited campaign.  However, to date they have not been helped by the system, so it would seem.  Given the significance of the application to the socio-economic development of the village, and the importance of the pub in supporting people enjoying the recreational opportunities of the National Park, it is surprising that the South Downs National Park Authority has not called this application in already.  It is currently being handled by Horsham District Council on behalf of the Park Authority, but information about the proposed conversion is hard to find on Horsham’s website.

Villagers have fought and won many battles before such as over the future of their local shop, their local school and proposals for the Wildbrooks which are now an RSPB reserve.  They deserve to succeed again, but to do so they will need the backing of the Park Authority.  It should be taking a firm stance on this development proposal which will undermine National Park purposes as well as ripping out the heart of the village community.  It’s why many people fought the battle to get a National Park.  Now the Authority needs to step up to the plate and be counted.  It can only win it friends, as well as safeguarding village life in the centre of the Park.

Secret woodland history could be revealed

The South Downs National Park Authority has successfully passed the first hurdle in its bid for Heritage Lottery Funding (HLF) for its ‘In the High Wood’ project.  It has been awarded £46,300 to develop the project in preparation for a full funding bid in Spring 2013.

‘In the High Wood’ aims to uncover the secret history of the densely wooded part of the South Downs between the River Adur and the A3, covering some 304 square kilometres, nearly 20% of the National Park.  This is an area, much of which lies under ancient forest, and of which very little is known about its past.  The plan is to use aerial survey techniques to uncover features which are impossible to see on the ground.  Then by working with local communities, the Park Authority hopes to be able to build a more complete picture as to what our ancestors have been doing here over the past 4,000 years.

The £1 million project is being led by the South Downs National Park Authority, in partnership with Chichester District Council and with the support of West Sussex and Hampshire County Councils.  The Park Authority is likely to contribute £130,000 towards the overall costs.  Its success in securing this early HLF funding should mean that it has a very good chance of succeeding with its final bid application next year and therefore of this exciting project going ahead.

Transport funding success

East Sussex County Council (ESCC) and Hampshire County Council (HCC) have both been successful in securing funding from the Local Sustainable Transport Fund with their joint bids with

the South Downs National Park Authority.  ESCC has been awarded £1.571 million over the next 3 years for its travel choices for Lewes, while HCC has been awarded £3.81 million for sustainable transport in England’s newest national parks, the New Forest and South Downs.

Last month we reported that the decision on the funding for these projects had been delayed.  Now it seems the Department for Transport has satisfied itself that the schemes are sound and deserve funding.  However, neither project received the total amount that was bid for.

Both projects are very welcome and should help promote travel by means other than the car, while reducing carbon emissions and supporting the local economy.  However, whether ultimately they will be successful is very much open to question with rail fares rising above inflation, fuel duty rebate for public transport operators being cut in August (in sharp contrast to fuel duty not now increasing in August) and West Sussex County Council cutting back on bus services including the no 62 to Midhurst.