Previous SectionIndexHome Page

South Downs

1 pm

Dr. Desmond Turner (Brighton, Kemptown): I am sure that all hon. Members are familiar with the south downs, having passed through the area on their way to Brighton for a party conference if at no other time. The downs comprise a fairly unique and sensitive area. They cover a large area, stretching from Winchester to Eastbourne, and are bordered by fairly dense population centres. The area is very dear to the public throughout virtually all south England.

In 1949--when the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed--the south downs were one of 12 areas considered for designation as a national park. As it was thought that the downs had been too damaged by "digging for victory" in the war, it was decided that they should not be so designated. None the less, it was decided that the downs should be designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty. Even in 1949, the downs clearly met the basic criteria for national park status. I submit that, today, the downs even more fully meet the criteria.

National parks must meet four important criteria, the first of which is that they should comprise extensive tracts of open countryside. The downs cover a total area of 1,375 sq km, which, in anyone's book, is quite a large area. The south downs are larger than four existing national parks. There is no question about the natural beauty of the downs. No one disputes their designation as an area of outstanding natural beauty.

Do the downs offer opportunities for open-air recreation? Every year, 32.5 million people resort to the south downs, demonstrating their enormous leisure use. Moreover, leisure use is greater in the downs than in any existing national park. The downs certainly score on that criterion.

What about the proximity of the south downs to population centres? They are close to Southampton, Portsmouth, Winchester, Brighton and Hove, and Eastbourne. That does not even include--

Mr. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): And Worthing.

Dr. Turner: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for forgetting his wonderful constituency.

Undoubtedly there are large populations right next to the south downs. Moreover, it is only a short way up the road to the vast population centre of London. The south downs probably have more people living within very easy reach than any existing national park.

The south downs clearly meet the criteria for national park status. Comments by the Countryside Commission and others to the effect that the downs are not an upland area, and hence do not meet recent interpretations of the criteria, are poppycock. Quite simply, the criteria were established in 1949, since when no national park has been created. There has therefore been no reinterpretation of the criteria since 1949: the reinterpretation argument is nonsense.

25 Nov 1998 : Column 176

The south downs can match existing national parks also in their areas of unspoilt pasture and woodland, which--as a percentage of total area--exceed the comparable areas of at least four national parks. There can be no question but that the downs qualify as a national park.

All parties to the argument are agreed that something must be done to give greater protection to the downs.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) rose--

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden) rose--

Dr. Turner: I have a choice. I shall take the intervention of the right hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith).

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Countryside Commission has strongly recommended that the south downs should not be designated as a national park? Would he care to comment on the fact that we are all agreed that the downs should have the highest protection, and that the commission's recommendation possibly has something to do with arguments to which he has not yet done justice?

Dr. Turner: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I was about to deal with that very point.

Mr. Tyrie: Will the hon. Gentleman give way on the same point?

Dr. Turner: If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I shall deal with one intervention at a time. My time is very short.

As I said, everyone agrees that current protection for the downs is inadequate. Several quite serious recent events have demonstrated the impotence of current protection. The only argument is whether the south downs should have national park status or be treated, under the Countryside Commission's recommendations, as an enhanced area of outstanding natural beauty. I should like quickly to examine what is offered by the options, to determine how well they might meet the objectives that must be met to protect the downs.

Conservation is a primary objective. Reconciling conservation with the demands of leisure use also must be a primary objective. If we opt for enhanced AONB status, we will address only conservation issues and not leisure use issues. That is a very important defect in the Countryside Commission's proposals. Conversely, a national park is established with the precise powers to address both sets of issues.

National parks are already covered by strong planning legislation, which would provide the minimum powers needed to protect the south downs. The only power provided by enhanced AONB status would be guaranteed, statutory consultation. That is not sufficient. I have been there--having served on county council planning committees--and have been through paragraph 5 consultations. I know that, sometimes, a district planning authority has already decided on a matter before it is referred to a council for consultation. Such a power is too weak to be of any real use.

25 Nov 1998 : Column 177

The option of legislation should be very carefully considered. We have two choices on legislation. If we protect the downs under the 1949 Act, we will require no further legislation, because all the necessary powers already exist. The Secretary of State would only have to make an appropriate order. Subsequently, there would have to be a public inquiry to determine the boundaries of the area, which would be designated as a park within about 18 months.

If the downs were designated as an enhanced AONB, a Bill would have to be introduced, as there are insufficient legislative powers to make such a designation.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): Is my hon. Friend aware of a very good publication, from the Council for National Parks, entitled "Meeting the Challenge"? Although the publication deals specifically with the New forest, it makes some very useful general points on protecting national parks, particularly ensuring that decisions are taken independently of local vested interests.

Dr. Turner: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, I am aware of the publication. I am aware also that a debate similar to that on the south downs is occurring on the New forest. The forces ranged on either side of both debates are fairly comparable. I have great sympathy with the claims of the New forest, which I know well from my childhood. I think that my hon. Friend and I would probably agree on the issues.

As I said, if the south downs are to be made an enhanced AONB, a Bill will be required. I do not have to remind hon. Members of current pressures on parliamentary time. At the current rate of progress, there is no real chance of the House passing any such measure in the next five years or so--if by then. Moreover, all we will have achieved in so doing is a measure of protection for the south downs that is inferior to that which is available immediately, by giving them national park status under current legislation.

Mr. Tyrie: We all want to do our best for the south downs, which is such a beautiful area. However, is the hon. Gentleman aware that the overwhelming majority of local people have made it clear that they would prefer to continue with the existing arrangements and not have a national park? There are 14 local authorities, only one of which--the hon. Gentleman's--has said that it wants to go ahead with national park status. As far as I am aware, the other 13 have made clear their opposition to it.

I came fresh to the subject, having moved into the area. I listened carefully to what people had to say before reaching my view that the overwhelming majority of local people want the existing arrangements, broadly speaking, to continue.

Dr. Turner: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention as I was about to deal precisely with his point. In fact, the overwhelming majority of those who have been consulted are in favour of a national park.

Mr. Tyrie: Not the local authorities.

Dr. Turner: Of the 14 authorities consulted, 13 simply took a decision in committee--they did not consult a single member of their electorates. However, Brighton and Hove

25 Nov 1998 : Column 178

consulted people living in Brighton and Hove, and the response was overwhelmingly in favour of national park status.

Mr. Loughton: How many?

Dr. Turner: Hundreds. A national opinion poll conducted by the Ramblers Association showed that in the Meridian television area some 84 per cent. of the public were in favour of national park status. Nationally, of all those aware of the debate, 83 per cent. were in favour. Those who thought that the area should not be given national park status were 7 per cent. and 9 per cent. respectively.

Next Section

IndexHome Page