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.

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.

Park transport bids left in limbo

The South Downs National Park Authority’s (SDNPA) bids for funding under the Local Sustainable Transport Fund have been left in limbo following an announcement on 24 May about 30 projects which will receive funding.  Up to 18 out of the 53 bids received will find out ‘shortly’ whether they have been successful or not.  No reasons have been given for the delay by the Department for Transport.

The SDNPA has joined forces with the New Forest National Park Authority and Hampshire County Council to submit a bid around changing travel behaviour for people accessing the Parks for recreational purposes to boost the local economy while cutting carbon emissions.

In its other bid it is working with East Sussex County Council around improving walking, cycling and public transport for people going about their daily lives, living and working in Lewes.  The aim is to boost the local economy while reducing the impact of this activity on the National Park.  This second bid is quite different from the joint bid with the New Forest in that it is not specifically aimed at tourists and recreational travel.

Road traffic already has a big impact on the special qualities of the South Downs.  Given the Government’s seeming determination to increase bus and rail fares, the former through cuts in the fuel duty rebate that bus operators receive, this is likely to get worse.  This is exacerbated by local authorities cutting funding for rural bus services as their budgets are squeezed.  That is why it is essential that the two bids for the National Park are successful.

National Park costs us less

One of the arguments for having a South Downs National Park was that it would bring in more funding to the area, while actually saving local people money.  An analysis of the figures now shows this to be correct.

This is contrary to what one local paper said recently when it claimed that the National Park Authority was costing Sussex residents £7 each.  Apart from forgetting that the National Park extends into Hampshire, it didn’t realise that the Park Authority’s budget of £11.4 million is not paid for solely by Hampshire and Sussex taxpayers.  Instead it is funded by the whole nation in recognition of its national importance, costing around 18 pence per person nationally.

However, this ignores the fact that around £3.5 million of the Park Authority’s budget is for planning which it has taken over from local authorities. Therefore this is not an extra cost for taxpayers. Taking this into account reduces the additional cost of the Park Authority to around 13 pence per person nationally.  This figure also ignores the fact that some national funding was given to the previous body managing the South Downs.  If this was included in the calculations, the additional cost would fall further still.

Another consideration is that before we had a National Park, local authorities previously paid the South Downs Joint Committee to manage the Downs. Now they no longer have to do this. Brighton & Hove City Council for example now saves around £80,000 a year, equivalent to a 32 pence per person saving.  In the rest of the Downs, the maths is more complex due to having two tier local authorities but the principle is the same.

Therefore overall, taxpayers in Sussex and Hampshire are likely to be better off.  In Brighton & Hove, the overall saving amounts to 19 pence per person per year.

Obviously, there were many other good reasons for wanting a National Park, but the fact that we are saving money while improving the conservation and protection of the South Downs is good news indeed.