Have we seen the full benefit?

Last week saw the publication of the South Downs Visitor Survey.  This outlines the impact and benefits of visitors to the South Downs National Park.  The headline story is that visitors spent £464 million in the local economy in 2011/12, supporting 8,200 jobs.  Nationally (in England & Wales), this places the South Downs third in terms of overall spend in National Parks: the Lake District was first with £952 million a year and the Pembrokeshire Coast second with £498 million a year.

However, underneath these headlines are some interesting statistics.  In total, there were 46.3 million day visits, the vast majority of which (over 80%) were made by people who live in the National Park or who made a day trip from home, i.e not far away.  The latter are likely to live in the many neighbouring towns and cities such as Eastbourne, Brighton & Hove, Worthing, Crawley, Portsmouth, Winchester, etc.  Most of these people (88%) were aware they were visiting a National Park.

Awareness of the National Park was also high amongst local businesses, with only 6 businesses not being aware that they were in the National Park.  Some businesses believe that the National Park has helped increase turnover and that can then have a knock-on benefit for others locally.  For example a pub serving local food can generate more demand for local produce helping both it and local producers in the process.

Overall though, it is clear that the number of overseas and overnight visitors is relatively small.  This is an area where there are opportunities for growth.  There is also a need for more visitor accomodation within the National Park, particularly serving the South Downs Way and other key recreational routes.  However, there is probably not the need for larger scale visitor accomodation within the area.  This can often be provided in the larger settlements surrounding the Park, particularly the holiday towns on the south coast, which have significant capacity already.  These areas will also be more appropriate locations for large scale development, if new development is needed, although Petersfield, Midhurst and Lewes could probably accomodate some facilities.

There is a danger of looking at the National Park in isolation and the obvious element missing from this study was the impact of the National Park on the economies of the surrounding settlements.  Visitors may well be drawn to the seaside towns, for example, for a number of reasons, part of which might include visiting the South Downs.  This may or may not accrue a benefit to the National Park economy but the National Park will have contributed to its surrounding economies.

When these benefits are taken into account, this could mean that the economic value of the South Downs is far greater than estimated by this study and something that needs to be considered in the future.

Making tracks

The recent announcement that the Government is investing £12 million to support cycling in National Parks is good news indeed.  All too often over the years, politicians have said how important walking and cycling are, yet have consistently failed to back the fine words with hard cash.

This increased investment comes at a time when there has been a resurgence in cycling over a number of years, but which has really taken off with the success of Bradley Wiggins and our other Olympians last summer.  Not only will it be good for public health and the environment, investing in cycling in the National Parks will be good for the local economy too.

Already in the South Downs National Park, there are a number of initiatives looking at the feasibility of improving cycling.  One of these is SHORTcut (Sussex and Hampshire Off Road Road Track) which is a local registered charity which has been established to promote and develop a new Greenway track for walkers, cyclists and horse riders.

It’s looking at a route along the old railway line from Petersfield Train station to Midhurst.  The track would be almost completely off road and ideal for children and families to use.

Further east, Brighton & Hove City Council is looking to improve links to Stanmer Park and ultimately to Ditchling Beacon along Ditchling Road.

While all of these projects are in their early stages, they offer a real opportunity to significantly increase access to and within the National Park for families wanting to leave their cars at home.  They can also become attractions in their own right as can be seen by the success of the Monsal Trail in the Peak District.  Closer to home the popularity of Centurion Way and the Cuckoo Trail highlight the demand that there is for better cycle facilities.  Hopefully, these are just the beginning.

We must seize this opportunity with both hands.  At the moment cycle provision is ad-hoc and fragmented.  Getting a few projects off the ground to show hows things could be might be the catalyst that is needed to inspire further improvements.  The more these can be linked up, the more popular and viable they will become.  Let’s hope the Park Authority is both bold and ambitious in helping to take this forward.