Hilary Benn with Robin Crane, chairman of the South Downs Campaign holding a signed copy of the Confirmation Order in 2009
After such a long battle to get the South Downs designated a National Park, in which Brighton & Hove Friends of the Earth played a prominent part, it seems almost surreal to realise that the designation is now 5 years old. The campaign could be said to have started in the 1920s when people started agitating for National Parks to be created in the UK. However, it wasn’t until after the 2nd World War that the legislation was passed in 1949, by the then Labour Government, to allow National Parks to be established.
The critical moment for the South Downs was in 1947 when the National Parks Committee chaired by Sir Arthur Hobhouse recommended that the South Downs be one of 12 landscapes that should be designated as a National Park. By the 1990s it was the only one that hadn’t. That was due to lobbying by various vested interests in 1956, when the South Downs was turned down as a National Park on the spurious grounds that due to intensive farming it no longer offered the required recreational opportunities. Yet this was clearly a trumped up excuse. The area is simply littered with rights of way and while it might not have as much open access land as other National Parks, it is one of the most visited of all the UK’s National Parks. People in effect had voted with their feet and its landscape beauty (which was not deemed to have been diminished by farming) was later recognised when it was designated as two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) in the 1960s.
In the 1980s, as development threats started to intensify and modern agricultural practices were still causing harm to the area, it was people like Paul Millmore and Phil Belden who started pushing the case for a National Park. However, it wasn’t until 1990 that the South Downs Campaign was formed at Sussex Wildlife Trust headquarters under the chairmanship of Robin Crane, who led the campaign right up to its dissolution in 2010.
Along the way there were many ups and downs and Brighton played a big part in rejuvenating the campaign in 1995 when the Council (then Labour) tried to sell off the downland estate and faced a huge backlash with a 12,000 signature petition opposing the sale. This was no mean feat before the time of social media and electronic petitions. The Council backed down and then to its credit got behind the National Park campaign, with full cross party support (Conservative, Green and Labour).
The 1997 General Election was also a key moment, when Farmer Harmer decided to plough up a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) at Offham Down. He was well within his rights, but the situation was not helped by a weak and underfunded Government Agency, unable to properly protect these valuable sites. However, it made great media and resulted in John Gummer (then Secretary of State for the Environment) having to order a Stop Notice to protect the site during the General Election campaign (only the 4th that he had ever issued).
After the election, Michael Meacher became the new Secretary of State and was instrumental in creating the right framework for the National Park to be created. We received strong support from the city’s MPs, particularly Dave Lepper and Des Turner, and a wealth of other people too numerous to mention. And despite being almost tripped up by the poor decisions taken on the New Forest National Park, we finally achieved the South Downs National Park in 2009, with the order confirming the designation coming in to effect on 31 March 2010. It covered a much larger area than could have been anticipated and that was down to the keen interest and enthusiasm shown by the then Secretary of State, Hilary Benn and his minister Huw Irranca-Davies. They in effect finished the job that the Labour Government had first started some 60 years earlier.
Today, Margaret Paren, a former member of the South Downs Campaign, has chaired the National Park Authority since its establishment and overseen its development and progress. Already, it is taking a more strategic and consistent approach to planning. It has supported nearly 200 local community projects, secured funding for research, restoration work and investment in new cycle routes throughout the National Park. It has produced a Management Plan and this year embarks on its own Local Plan. There is much to do and the threats to National Parks are increasing as Government slashes the already very small National Parks’ funding and presses ahead with dismantling the planning system and spending money on new roads.
On a day of celebration, it was appropriate to see the Brighton & Hove bus carrying Paul Millmore’s name heading to Lewes and beyond. But we must also realise that the future of the South Downs is not guaranteed. It may be in a better place than it was 5, 10 or even 20 years ago, but it faces some very big challenges over the next few years. If it succeeds in overcoming these, then we will know how successful it has been.