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.

Smart Stuff!

Ever wanted to find out more about the area you’re in but don’t want to come across large interpretation boards every few hundred metres?  Well, that time has finally come.  The South Downs National Park Authority is currently trialling the latest technology to allow people with smart phones to find out more about the landscape they are visiting.

Small signs have been put up on 40 posts at 9 sites along the South Downs Way.  The signs, no wider than the width of a wooden post, contain a small amount of text, a Quick Response (QR) code, which can be scanned with a smart phone and allows the user to access, websites, video and audio commentary and other information about the local area.  In addition, the signs also have a tag embedded in them which enables people with smartphones with Near Field Communcation technology (NFC) to place their phone over the sign and without the bother of scanning a QR code, they can access the same information.

While this is fantastic news for people who want to find out more, it only works of course if you have a modern smart phone.  One of the concerns is that those people who don’t will be excluded from this.  This means that for the foreseeable future, there will still be a need for large interpretation boards at specific locations.  However, as more and more people take up the new technology, over time these are likely to disappear.  The exception of course is in those areas where there is no mobile reception.  But for some, that might just represent heaven.

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.

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.