The landscapes of the National Park are living, changing landscapes that have been shaped by people over millennia. This Plan is a shared endeavour to positively shape the future of the National Park in order that its special qualities endure rather than to fossilise them in time.
- The Climate Emergency
The National Park is already experiencing more unpredictable weather events causing drought, soil erosion and flooding. This is changing the landscapes as habitats come under pressure and agricultural systems and infrastructure struggle to adapt. The 2019 report of the Climate Change Committee sets a radical target of achieving a zero carbon UK by 2050 and like all parts of society, National Parks must up their game now to meet this challenge:
- Planning must work to combat climate change: The South Downs Local Plan, adopted in July 2019, creates a single overarching policy framework for new development. By taking an eco-system services approach to development, the Local Plan seeks to improve the National Park’s resilience to and mitigation of climate change.
- We must change the way we travel and live: There is an urgent need to decarbonise transport, and to roll out energy efficiency and renewable energy in ways that are appropriate in these special landscapes.
- We must change the way we manage land: Radical changes will be needed to enable the landscape to combat climate change through carbon capture, reduced emissions and by creating more space for nature so that species and habitat can grow and move.
The National Park is home to more than 8,000 businesses, and a thriving economy is essential if our landscapes are to be sustainably managed.
- When the UK leaves the EU, a major transition will take place: subsidy regimes, commodity tariffs and the availability of seasonal labour will all be impacted.
- The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) will be replaced by an Environmental Land Management System (ELMS): which will use public money to pay farmers for public goods such as clean water, better soils, wildlife or access. Working through farm clusters, many farmers in the South Downs have already agreed to be part of the national pilot for this new scheme.
- A large proportion of National Park rural businesses are not land based: Mobile phone signal coverage, broadband connectivity and speeds are limiting factors, and will require new forms of Government support for rural development.
- Tourism and the visitor economy will change: This Plan sets out a shared vision for how the National Park and its place brand, is central to sustainable tourism and the visitor economy, encouraging people to stay longer, do more and spend locally.
Evidence of the physical and mental health benefits of connection with nature continues to grow, yet the national trends are still largely in the wrong direction. This Plan introduces a new priority on health and wellbeing which aims to involve communities in and around the boundary who suffer from poor health.
- Increasing use: Much has been done to increase use of the National Park by schools, support volunteering and to improve access for walkers, cyclists and equestrians via the South Downs Way, the wider Rights of Way network and new dedicated routes.
At the same time, cuts in public transport have increased car dependency and many sectors of society, including many who would benefit the most, still face barriers to using the National Park.
Nature is increasingly under pressure, with growing national evidence about decline in insect populations, soils, water and air quality, and the onset of new pests and diseases (such as Ash Dieback) becoming evident. It is hard to state with confidence whether wildlife in the South Downs is yet bucking national trends of decline.
- We must reverse the decline of nature: Despite many impressive actions by: farm clusters; estates; environmental nongovernmental organisations (NGOs); conservation groups and communities; and despite individual success stories such as the reintroduction of the water vole and the red kite, increasing numbers of some farmland birds, and the recovery of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly; the challenge remains huge.
- We must give nature a chance to recover: Rewilding projects, such as that at the nearby Knepp Estate, reveal just how much wildlife had already been lost from our landscapes by the early 20th century, but also show how quickly nature can recover if given the chance.
- Our precious landscapes are managed landscapes: Our most precious habitats – such as chalk grassland, heathland or coppice woodland – arose from lowland mixed farming and forestry systems, so wholesale abandonment of farming could be ecologically, as well as culturally and economically, undesirable.
- This Plan aims to build consensus among land managers about how to use agriculture, forestry and rewilding approaches together to rebuild our natural capital alongside not instead of producing food.
- New Housing and Infrastructure
- Working with neighbouring authorities: Situated in the heavily populated South East, the National Park is already experiencing major housing development around its borders. These new communities will inevitably have a significant impact; for example, on water abstraction and treatment, transport systems and because people will want to and should have access to enjoy the South Downs. This Plan therefore includes commitments to work with neighbouring local authorities to develop people and nature networks across boundaries.
- National infrastructure schemes must take far better account of protected landscapes: There are an increasing number of proposals for new national infrastructure including road and rail schemes, pipelines and cable routes that could cut through the National Park. Solutions must be found to avoid or reduce the impact of such schemes and to achieve net gain for the environment.
- Water under pressure: The South Downs is a living reservoir providing freshwater for important species and habitats and over 1.2m people.
- Over abstraction: Although abstraction has been reduced on some vulnerable and important catchments like the Itchen, both the aquifers and river flows remain vulnerable to over use, and household per capita consumption is still higher than the national average. Growing pressure on water resources has implications for biodiversity and agriculture, resulting in the need to further reduce abstraction and to increase availability through rainwater harvesting schemes or new reservoirs.
- Poor water quality: Despite significant projects with water companies during the five years of the first Plan, the status of these freshwater resources is still often poor, with low flows, increasing nitrate levels and pollution incidents from sewage treatment. In parts of the National Park, including behind Brighton, on the Rother valley and above Portsmouth, there have been some very innovative pilot projects by water companies, working with the Authority, farmers, NGOs and government bodies to change land use and reduce nitrates at source. This often has other benefits, for example, to biodiversity and soil carbon, and this Plan includes commitments to mainstream these successful approaches.