A School Too Far?

Recently, one of the most tranquil parts of the South Downs National Park has generated quite a lot of noise far beyond its boundaries.  Previously, St Cuthman’s, a special needs school for around 100 pupils that closed in 2004, was little known except amongst the local community.  However, all that changed a few weeks ago after a local councillor made racist comments to a national newspaper, for which he has since apologised, in relation to the Durand Academy’s proposals for the site.

On the one hand, it has created a vigorous debate, more centred on class inequalities and educational opportunities than the planning issues which should ultimately determine whether this site is developed or not.  However, on the other hand concerns about the environmental impact of the proposals have at long last started to be aired.

The Durand Academy’s aspiration, on the surface, has much to commend it – giving inner city teenagers a chance to excel in a different environment.  However, the concerns arise because of the choice of location for its weekday boarding school along with the size of its proposals.  At over 600 pupils, the proposed school would be six times bigger than what was previously there, with a considerable amount of new build, primarily six new 3-storey accomodation blocks and two new school buildings.

To start with, St Cuthman’s is located in the north-eastern corner of the parish of Stedham with Iping, close to Woolbeding and Redford parish.  This is one of the most tranquil and innaccessible parts of the South Downs National Park and is lightly populated.  It is close to the Woolbeding and Pound Common Site of Special Scientific Interest, and the National Trust which has significant landholdings in the area is concerned that this development would lead to a suburbanisation of the landscape.

The site is only accessible via narrow country lanes, unsuited to large coaches, HGV construction traffic and the on-going servicing of the site.  It is also far from a railway station, with poor access to the strategic road network.

There are also concerns about the impact on Wispers, a grade II listed building, and the walled garden which would have a refectory built in it.

Durand’s consultants claim to have searched far and wide for a suitable site, and that St Cuthman’s came out top by a considerable margin according to their criteria.  However, a closer look at their alternative sites report shows some rather bizarre scoring for St Cuthman’s.  To start with it scores 10 out of 10 on road access, yet is only accessible via small country lanes, while other properties closer to the motorway network scored lower.  The same is true for planning.  While it might be true that the site currently is allocated for educational uses, this is not a modest expansion, more like a new major development and as such it is innappropriate in a National Park.  Yet this does not seem to have been considered for St Cuthman’s, while planning difficulties for other sites were played up.

It is clear that this proposal will be a test of the South Downs National Park Authority’s (SDNPA) resolve to conserve and enhance the South Downs and the effectiveness of the Government’s National Policy Planning Framework to safeguard nationally designated landscapes.  Unlike the King Edward VII hospital redevelopment, where the SDNPA’s hands were tied by previous permissions from Chichester District Council, there is no precedent with this site, other than its previous use.  However, given the substantial nature of this proposal, it should be treated as a major new development.

No doubt there will be high level political pressure for this to be approved, but the SDNPA must stand firm and rise above the politics to put the National Park first.  Local people who, to date, have largely led the opposition to this development have set up a petition calling on the SDNPA to reject the proposals.  However, it is not just locals who will be following this proposal closely, but people right across the Park, not least the many who campaigned so vigorously to make this a National Park in the first place.

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.

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.