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South Downs National Park

Bill Bryson visiting Hampshire, South Downs
Bill Bryson on his visit to the Hampshire, South Downs. Photo: CPRE

Bill Bryson
15 September 2007

You don’t have to venture far onto Longmoor Heath, in the Western Weald of Hampshire, to know that you have stumbled on an unusually favoured spot. Lightly wooded and knee-deep in ferns, it is one of those miraculously peaceful landscapes that seem to have slumbered unnoticed and undisturbed since the dawn of time.

Part of the much larger Woolmer Forest, it is like a lost corner of the New Forest, but to many minds is even more scenic thanks to its long views of the steep and comely hills known as the Hampshire Hangers. It is a miracle and joy that such a refuge of perfection survives just 50 miles from Trafalgar Square.

Until a few weeks ago the heath, the forest and vast tracts of land beyond were to be part of the new and long-awaited South Downs National Park. But in July the government inspector, Neil Parry, recommended that they be excluded on the odd grounds that they were not geologically appropriate and the even odder ones that they were not sufficiently lovely. At a stroke the proposed park has been cut by nearly a quarter, from 1,638 square kilometres to just 1,267.

“It’s astounding really,” Margaret Paren, a retired civil servant and CPRE stalwart, told me when I visited the area this week. We were standing by a lovely old barn at a place called Old Ditcham Farm, near Petersfield. “This is a perfect example of what’s happened,” she said. “The barn here has been taken out of the park, but the farmhouse is still in. The land on that side of the road is in, but on this side it’s out. No one in their right mind would suggest that the landscape on one side is worthier than the landscape on the other, but that is in fact what has happened.”

Why it has happened is a question that takes some answering. The South Downs National Park has existed as an idea for over 60 years. In 1947 it was one of 12 areas of England recommended for park status by Sir Arthur Hobhouse, and it was the only one of the original twelve not to gain that recognition in the years that followed. In 1956 it was considered for inclusion but the proposal was set aside on the lame (and, as time has shown, patently incorrect) grounds that it didn’t have adequate recreational prospects. Instead in 1962 it became two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, designations designed to give all the protections of a national park but without the visitor centres and other touristy paraphernalia.

Finally in 1999, more than 50 years after it was first proposed, the park idea was resurrected. After the usual long period of consultations the boundaries were agreed, and hundreds of hardworking volunteers like Margaret Paren were set to celebrate the birth of England’s newest and in many ways most important national park. So it came as a shock when, in early July, the inspector announced that he wished the park to be much smaller than everyone had supposed it would be.

It is a decision that is truly hard to understand. I spent a long day this week being driven by CPRE members along the back roads of Hampshire and West Sussex, through a landscape of woods, sunken lanes, rolling hills and hidden farms, all of it glorious, all of it now outside the new national park boundaries.

“This would be London’s national park in effect – the one national park that could be reached easily from the city,” Shirley Wright of the West Sussex CPRE pointed out as we paused on a hill in the village of Elsted and took in a view that was ancient, expansive and fine. The Western Weald is not only lovely to behold and to be in, but miraculously unspoiled despite standing in some of the most developmentally attractive countryside on the planet. I can’t imagine that any landscape this uniformly serene and agreeable stands so close to a national capital anywhere else in the world.

Already the South Downs and Western Weald attract more than 40 million recreational visits a year – more than any existing national park. So it would seem logical, on visitor grounds alone, to make it as large as possible. In fact, the very opposite appears set to happen. The inspector wishes to confer park status only on the lofty uplands, which least need rigorous protection (IKEA is unlikely to want to build on a hilltop after all) and withhold it from the populous valleys, where developers would most like to plant their golf courses, executive estates and retail sheds.

The suspicion is that the government has taken fright at the cost of maintaining a national park in an area of prosperous, developmentally promising market towns like Petersfield, Midhurst and Petworth, but that isn’t what it is saying.

It is saying rather that the Western Weald should be excluded on the grounds that it is a landscape of a different character. The South Downs, the argument runs, are chalky uplands, while the more low-lying Weald is made up of older sandstones and clays, which give it an entirely different nature (a fact that, if really relevant, somebody perhaps ought to have noticed years ago). No one disputes the geology, but the logic is beyond fathoming. Most national parks incorporate more than one landscape type – the Peak District has three, the Lake District five – and most people would argue that variety is the essence of their glory. Anyway nothing in the designation guidelines suggests that uniformity of subsoil ought to be an inspector’s ambition.

But the real pain and worry come from the suggestion that the lands to be excluded have for the most part become irreversibly degraded. Here is a typical passage from the landscape assessor’s lengthy report:

I do not consider that Liss, Petersfield or Sheet meet the natural beauty criterion. I also find that the character of the surrounding landscape has been extensively fragmented by the transport infrastructure and urbanising influences. In my view, the character and quality of the ‘Mixed Farmland and Woodland’ landscape character type has been so degraded by the combined effects of settlements, road and rail links, that the tract no longer meets the natural beauty criterion.

And so it goes through many long and bewilderingly dismissive pages. Why – to take just one small point – a venerable railway line that was unexceptionable sixty years ago is now an intolerable scar on the landscape is a question that really could do with answering.

“The inconsistencies are almost comical,” Margaret Paren told me. “According to the assessor’s report, the A272 is noisy and intrusive where it passes through the Weald, but a lovely country lane when it reaches the Downs. They seem desperate to fit the facts to their case rather than the other way around.”

It’s little wonder that nearly everyone you meet believes the real motivation for shrinking the park is to save money.

“If that is so,” says Chris Todd, head of the South Downs Campaign, a coalition of more than 100 pro-park organisations, which includes the CPRE, “then that is really very disappointing because in the overall scheme of things the park budget is peanuts. The estimated cost of the park – that is, the larger park, with the Western Weald included – is £6 to £8 million a year. That compares with the £200 million to £300 million budget you have for a single local authority like Brighton & Hove.

“National parks are in fact tremendously good value. All of them together cost the British taxpayer £1 per person per year. And anyway the £6 to £8 million for the national park isn’t additional costs, but costs transferred from one budget to another. So cost grounds would be a very, very poor reason for creating a park that is smaller than it ought to be.”

A separate but very worrying danger is what all this means for the future of AONB’s. To argue that two of the largest and most important AONBs in the south of England have become critically degraded in 40 years doesn’t say much for government policy, does it? Even worse is the thought of a developer being able to say to a planning inspector: “Look, if it isn’t good enough to include in the national park, how can you claim it’s worth protecting now?”

Submissions from interested parties will be accepted till September 24, then Jonathan Shaw, the presiding minister, or Hillary Benn, the Secretary of State, must decide whether to accept the inspector’s report or to modify it. They won’t make a more important decision this year.

It would be wonderful to think that before taking such a decision, they will come out and do what I did – spend a day driving around looking at it. I can guarantee they will have a lovely day. They really ought to see it while it is still there.

© Bill Bryson
September 2007

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