A look at the new National Park designation
The South Downs area of England has finally been granted national park status - almost 60 years later than originally expected!
On account of its natural beauty and opportunities for open-air recreation, the granting of park status means that the area now has the highest level of protection available under the UK planning system.
However, the decision is not to everyone in the region’s liking. Why are some people in favour of making the South Downs a national park, while others are still opposed to it? And how do policy-makers know exactly where the park's boundaries should be drawn?
What challenges and opportunities does 'national park’ status bring to Britain’s South Downs?
How did policy-makers decide where the park's boundaries lie?
KS3 National Parks - links to the KS3 concept of 'Place'
Environment secretary Hilary Benn has declared the South Downs a national park, sixty years after the 1949 National Parks Act was first passed. Since then, the Peak District, Dartmoor, Exmoor, Snowdonia and the Yorkshire Dales have all gained park status. These nationally significant landscapes are permanently protected from large-scale urban development and have instead been opened up for outdoor pursuits. Now the South Downs can join them. It was first identified in 1947 as a region possibly deserving of protection - but is has taken until now for formal recognition to be given.
Britain's newest national park stretches for 90 miles (140 km), from Winchester in the west out to East Sussex. The southern park boundary lies just north of the coast meaning that it excludes major settlements such as Southampton and Brighton. The park will, however, include some smaller towns such as Arundel and Lewes. Over the next year or so, the Government will continue to consult on six smaller possible additions (in practice that probably means the park will not be formally created until 2010).
The UK’s national parks, along with Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, form part of a worldwide network of protected landscapes established by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature / World Conservation Union).
Support for national parks grew rapidly in Britain after the 1932 Kinder Scout mass trespass on the Duke of Devonshire's Derbyshire estate. Ordinary people made it clear to the government that they wanted to be able to enjoy their national wilderness regions - and to be able to walk freely in places like the Lake District and the Peak District
An essay in The Guardian newspaper (02 April 2009) suggests that the parks were originally seen by some as “a way of saying sorry for the industrial revolution and giving urban labourers the same access to the natural heritage as any country squire. With it came some highbrow paternalism: a hope that the working class might spend their paid holidays and shorter hours embracing ‘the refreshing qualities of air and climate and the active pastimes of the countryside’ rather than more unbecoming leisure pursuits.”
The South Downs' wonderful countryside – consisting of chalk-lands, forests and valleys - will be protected from more roads, houses, and retail parks for the enjoyment of everyone both today and tomorrow. This is a sustainable strategy. The DEFRA website puts it thus: “The South Downs has been recognised as having a special status for many years. Designation as a national park confirms that status and ensures that it will continue to be available for future generations to enjoy.”
National park status can be a real boost for the local economy, attracting new visitors, businesses and investment. Already 1 million people visit the South Downs region each year – this is likely to rise further.
Settlements such as Winchester and Alresford will become ‘Gateways’ to the Park, and can market their existing tourism even more effectively (Alresford is seeking status as a ‘food town’ destination).
Local MP Nigel Waterson believes the new designation could block ‘long-overdue’ plans to improve and develop much-needed roads for the region, such as the A27.
Some local politicians worry that local planning applications will be taken out of their control and instead be decided by an un-elected group of park managers - potentially based outside the area in Brighton!
Park status could further increase the popularity of the area for second-home owners, leading to an exodus of those who will no longer be able to afford to buy property within the park. Settlements may become ghost towns due to an increase in the number of second homes and holiday lets.
National parks attract large numbers of visitors, with vastly increased levels of traffic congestion. This can increase destruction of natural habitats – having the opposite effect from what was originally intended!
Britain’s newest and ninth national park, which covers parts of Sussex and Hampshire, was among 12 areas first identified in the 1940s as deserving of environmental protection. But where should its edges be drawn?
Various proposals have been made over the years as to where best set the boundary lines for the proposed South Downs National Park. Originally it was suggested that the park should include a region called the Western Weald.
However, a later recommendation excluded the Western Weald (including the villages Petersfield, Liss, Midhurst and Petworth). The grounds for rejection were based on differences in geology. Western Weald lacks the chalk parent material, calcareous soils and grasslands found throughout the rest of the South Downs region. It is, in contrast, underlain by sandstone that naturally favours deciduous forest.
However, many local people disagreed with the exclusion ruling, feeling that the Western Weald still shares a ‘general character’ with the rest of this rural region. 16,000 people signed a petition supporting Western Weald’s inclusion.
In the final analysis, a range of quantitative and qualitative data were used by decision-makers to help them decide where the national park boundary should be drawn.
Quantitative data are ‘hard’ numerical facts – such as the frequency of occurrence of key biological indicator species – or maps showing local geology and soils. But there were also qualitative measures to consider in this case – such as the overall ‘look’ or ‘feel’ of the landscape.
The final verdict? Western Weald will be included after all. It will become part of the new national park.
Further information on National Park Authorities and the South Downs ruling is available for researching at the following websites:
DEFRA: What are National Park Authorities?
Natural England: National Parks
The Planning Inspectorate: South Downs National Park Inquiry
Natural England: Proposed South Downs National Park
The South Downs Campaign
Downloadable maps of the Proposed South Downs National Park
Written by Dr Simon Oakes, Edexcel A-level Principal Examiner, International Baccalaureate Chief Examiner (2009) and teacher at Bancroft’s School, Essex
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