MEMORIES OF THE SOUTH DOWNS CAMPAIGN
Growing up in Chichester in the 1950’s I lived as far from a National Park as was possible. Whilst enjoying cycling into the South Downs I little knew that I had a future national park on my very doorstep!
As well as my professional life as a town planner from 1962 to 1999 with various local planning authorities (mainly in London but none in Sussex) I was involved in various voluntary environmental activities including the YHA’s Southern England Region Countryside Committee. I was aware of the Sussex Downs Conservation Board through the late Len Clark, chairman of YHA in the 1960’s, who suggested I might like to sit in at a meeting of the SDCB of which he was a Government appointee.
As the South Downs Campaign become more active, Len and I joined the EC in 1996 to represent YHA on the SDC’s EC. Alarmed at the possible demise of the experimental SDCB after its six year life had expired in 1998, SDC stepped up its campaign. and sent a letter to the Times signed by the Chairmen and Presidents of the major national bodies represented on the Campaign. In April 1997 it published a report: The South Downs: securing their future.’
Following the election of a Labour Government in 1999, the Environment Minister Michael Meacher asked the Countryside Commission (CoCo) to advise him on the most appropriate type of organisation to meet the conservation and management needs of the South Downs (both the Sussex Downs and East Hampshire AONBs.) and CoCo published a consultation document in December 1997. As a member of the Chichester Society, I wrote an article for the Chichester Society’s newsletter in March 1998 entitled: The South Downs: Protecting our heritage’. In due course the Chichester Society joined the Campaign.
When at the Labour party conference in October 1999 John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, announced that the Government would designate two new National Parks- the South Downs I realised that I was not taking early retirement at the end of the year a moment too soon!
In Spring 2000 the Countryside Agency (CA) which had superseded CoCo began the lengthy process of designating a South Downs National Park and set up a special NP Designation Team headed by Marian Spain.
In 2001 the SDC set up a Boundaries Working Group chaired by Margaret Paren, representative of CPRE Hampshire. I was a member of the Group throughout the Campaign. The other members were our newly appointed Campaign Officer Chris Todd, the late Paul Millmore and Owen Plunkett. We carried out and coordinated detailed research into areas outside the two existing AONBs to assess whether they met the CA’s criteria for inclusion within the NP. Some thirty additional areas were identified and allocated to SDC EC members as Key Contacts on account of their local knowledge of a specific area. (see Newsletter Issue 2 August 2001.) The CA had identified ‘Areas of Search’ outside the AONB boundaries and we examined all of these but proposed many additional areas as well.
Somewhat tongue in cheek, Tom Oliver and I (for CPRE and YHA) proposed that the Lower Arun Valley south of Arundel to the sea at Climping should be included in the NP but the SDC EC considered that this was a boundary too far and only proposed it should be as far south as the coastal railway at Ford. Even this was unsuccessful but BInstead Woods are included.
Tom Oliver was particularly keen for the small Hampshire village of West Tisted to be included, and this was successful. The BWG made numerous day trips with pub lunches of varying quality. We visited Lord Gage at Firle Place and his son and the estate manager. discuss their feelings about the SDNP They were in favour, as were their tenants at Middle Farm, and in due course the Firle estate south of the A27 was included within the NP but Middle Farm, north of the A27, was left outside. We also failed in our efforts to include Abbotts Wood and Mickleham Priory in the NP partly because the owners of the Wootton Estate made it clear that they would not allow any public access across their estate, but probably also as it would make it more difficult for the Government to dual the A27 if it were to pass through the NP rather than to form the Park boundary.
A Chichester Sub- Group of the SDC had attempted to get the NP boundary drawn close to the urban boundary of the city but this failed completely. (This group comprised the Chichester Society, Lavant and Funtington Parish Councils, Chichester City Council, Brandy Hole Copse Group and Summersdale Residents Association.)
I made eight written submissions off my own bat for unloved areas about which which nobody else seemed concerned. One was Portsdown Hill and the remnants of the Forest of Bere, but the Inspector judged this to be fragmented and no longer a tract of open countryside. (it is currently part of an area of South Hants for which a campaign for a green belt is underway.) Only one of my personal proposals was successful- Alice Holt Forest- but only by the skin of its teeth!
The CA had identified it within an area of search but at the first inquiry the inspector had rejected it because of its lack of connectivity to the chalk Downs. At the second Inquiry he rejected it as it was bisected by the noisy A325 road. I had argued that the Forest was already managed as a visitor hub with facilities appropriate to a NP, and moreover that it was accessible from Bentley station on the Waterloo-Alton line.
This was however one of two areas (the other being Ditchling) which Environment Minister Hilary Benn decided to visit to judge for himself whether they should be in the NP. He decided that they should both be included, so Alice Holt Forest, a strange extremity of the SDNP, is the closest point of the SDNP to London! On our final BWG day trip we visited, at the CA’s request, six areas to advise on the exact boundaries, and Alice Holt Forest and Castle Goring were two of these six. We enjoyed a final pub lunch on the lawn of the Three Horseshoes at Elsted with its unspoilt view of Harting Down.
As reported in newsletter no.9 (Winter 2005, ‘Last push for National Park’) Alan Hilliar, Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Chichester, gave up his August bank holiday weekend in 2005 to cycle along the South Downs Way from Eastbourne to Winchester both to raise sponsorship and publicity for the SDC. Chris Todd and Paul Millmore saw him off from the foot of Beachy Head and his wife and his mother provided overnight accommodation in the family camper van. Members of the SDC met him along the way.
I was due to meet him at Exton for a pub lunch. He never appeared due to poor signage in the Meon Valley and as time was running out he had to miss out Exton. I drove quickly to WInchester and arrived at the City Mill just in time to welcome him at his journey’s end and his wife took photographs of me congratulating him. He raised over £600 towards the SDC whose funds were running low.
It had always been made quite clear at the outset that the South Downs Campaign had a single purpose- the designation of a South Downs National Park. I will never forget the celebration at DItchling tearooms on the morning of 12 November 2009 to witness Environment Minister Hilary Benn signing the confirmation order to create the South Downs National Park! This meant that we must disband, our task completed.
We held a closing down ceremony in the Minerva Theatre, Chichester in February 2009 chaired by the Mayor of Chichester, Michael Woolley whose Lib Dem City Council was a member of the SDC. This was a symbolic location for the ceremony as Chichester was the headquarters of West Sussex CC and Chichester DC, both the most vehement opposers of a SDNP. Michael said that in his Mayoral year he had often been invited to open something or other but this was the first time he had been asked to close something down! He ‘hereby declared the SDC well and truly closed’. A few weeks later he led a celebratory walk from Chichester’s City Cross, up the Centurion Way cycle path to Lavant village hall where he had laid on light refreshments, stopping briefly for photographs at the boundary of the SDNP just south of the village. The SDC produced a triumphant final newsletter, no.13, Spring 2010 ‘Job Done’.
Participation in the South Downs Campaign was the most stimulating and enjoyable work in which I have ever been involved and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything! It was thanks to my oldest and very dear friend Len Clark, who passed away in September 2019 aged 103, that I was privileged to be accepted as a member of the Executive Committee. The committee chairman Robin Crane and secretary Chris Todd worked tirelessly to lead the work of the campaign which progressed year by year in a game of snakes and ladders.
The EC numbered 15-20 members, all representing their own organisations. Some were paid, others like Len and myself were volunteers, but all of us worked together in harmony for a common cause. The age range spanned half a century, Chris Todd being the youngest and Len Clark the oldest, and I was midway between the two. One of our most dedicated members, Margaret Paren, was elected Chair of the National Park Authority in 2010 and remains chair to this day. We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude as she continues to work every waking hour for the good of the South Downs.