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Fernhurst to stay Frack Free

At its meeting on 11 September the National Park’s Planning Committee rejected a planning application from Celtique Energie for exploratory drilling for “hydrocarbons” (or, oil and gas) at a site in the park near Fernhurst, West Sussex.  This application had been highly publicised and very controversial as it has been widely assumed that, should extraction follow the exploratory drilling, it would be by “unconventional means”, or fracking.

Attendance at the meeting was by ticket only. From a large number of organisations and individuals who had expressed an interest in addressing the committee with their objections, local campaigners asked the Society to lead off.  At the end of the two hour meeting the committee unanimously resolved to refuse the application.

Whatever the company may have had in mind by way of future extraction, the committee was at pains to stress that it could only consider the specific proposal in front of it — for exploration –; but members clearly expressed what they viewed as fundamental conflicts between the proposed drilling and the purposes for which the National Park had been designated.

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National park friends group calls for action on eyesore

Shoreham cement image

The West Sussex Gazette has just published the following from the Society on its letters page

 

It’s hard to miss and even harder to resolve, but can we talk turkey about the old Shoreham cement works?

As the national park society for the South Downs National Park, our objective is conserving and enhancing the special landscape quality of the downs and its quiet enjoyment.  And, across the whole length of the park from Winchester to Eastbourne, there are no greater obstacles to that enjoyment than the sight of the old cement works in the Adur valley. With the advent of the new national park authority, its legal duty to prepare a local plan for the park, and the scope offered to communities through neighbourhood planning to shape their own future, we surely have an opportunity now to take action to clear this eyesore and establish a mix of acceptable land uses for years to come.

Realistically we can’t see the park authority trying to buy out the site from its owners to reinstate green fields. It has a value arising from current and prospective use and permissions and any agreed scheme will need to reflect that, but we operate a plan-led system and we need to make progress in establishing a master plan for the site which helps to meet local and parkwide needs. This is not where you would ideally start from in developing new commercial, housing or leisure uses in terms of sustainability, transport access or visual impact on the national park, but we are where we are.

We wish success to those in the local community, the district councils, the county council and at the national park in their planmaking endeavours. We hope local residents and others will contribute enthusiastically to the debate. This society will be keen to participate and will be looking for solutions that respect the location in the heart of our newest national park.

Steve Ankers, Policy Officer, South Downs Society

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Patron Event at Woolbeding Garden near Midhurst

604 SDS Patrons Event   31 July 2014On Thursday 31 July the society was pleased to have the opportunity to invite Patrons to an exclusive evening at Woolbeding Garden.

After tea and short addresses by our President Baroness Whittacker and the National Trust’s Petworth House General Manager Rob Jackson we were shown around this extraordinary garden by the head gardener Paul Gallivan.

This 26-acre garden is the creation of Mr Simon Sainsbury and Stewart Grimshaw in conjunction with garden designers Lanning Roper and the Bannermans and, still very much a private garden, is only open to the public two days a week.

If you would like to have the opportunity to join these exclusive events in the future why not consider becoming a Patron of the society?  For details please contact the office on 01798 875073 or email info@southdownssociety.org.uk.

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Society attends new South Downs Centre event

On Sunday 27 July the society attended a special community open day at the new South Downs Centre in Midhurst.  The event, to celebrate the new facility and mark the start of National Parks Week, was attended by over 500 visitors.

The Society received a very positive response from people we talked to at our stand.  It was an excellent opportunity to talk about our work in protection of the unique landscape and the cultural heritage of the South Downs and we received a number of enquiries about membership and volunteering opportunities.

Some 50 people arrived via organised walks or cycled in from the surrounding area, with the Society leading walks in from Lodsworth, Stedham and Cocking.  The Fernhurst Society organised a walk in from Fernhurst.

A number of other local groups were at the event to talk about their projects, including The South Pond group, Coultershaw Heritage and Beam Pump Trust and Butser Ancient Farm.  Meanwhile young people were kept entertained with giant jigsaws, a mobile planetarium, sash making and face painting.

The Society is pleased to have been able to support the South Downs National Park Authority at this well attended event.

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Sussex Heritage Trust Awards 2014

Robert Cheesman with winners of SDS Special Commendations at Sussex Heritage Lunch, Pangdean 3 July 2014
Robert Cheesman with winners of SDS Special Commendations at Sussex Heritage Lunch, Pangdean 3 July 2014

As we did in 2013, the Society is supporting the annual awards scheme of the Sussex Heritage Trust, designed to recognise and reward high quality conservation and restoration, and good design in new-build projects, and encourage the use of traditional skills and crafts.

South Downs Society Special Commendations were presented earlier today at the Trust’s awards ceremony to two projects making a particular contribution to National Park purposes.

  • The Ditchling Museum of Arts and Crafts which was an ambitious refurbishment coupled with new design that makes a significant contribution to understanding the National Park’s special qualities.
  • Tithe Barn at Sullington Manor farm which has been sensitively restored to enable reuse as an outlet that contributes to the economy of the local community.

 

We would like to congratulate all those involved in these two projects.

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It’s official! Brighton and Lewes Downs is a World Biosphere site.

After six years’ work by local partners including the South Downs Society, the city of Brighton and Hove, the town of Lewes, all the downland between the rivers Adur and Ouse, the coastal strip as far east as Newhaven, and the adjacent inshore waters, have been designated as the first new World Biosphere site in the UK for 40 years in recognition of its “world class environment”.

It is the first such site in the south east of England and one of only a few which includes a major urban area. The Brighton and Lewes Downs joins a network of over 600 designated Biosphere sites in more than 100 countries around the world.

The accolade is a reflection not only of the current quality of the local environment but also of the achievements, aims and commitment of the local community in looking after that environment. While the designation does not of itself necessarily bring extra funding for environmental work in the area, it should act as a beacon and encouragement for greater effort and vigilance. The South Downs Society will continue to play its part in conserving and enhancing the landscape of the national park for quiet enjoyment.

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Making contributions to affordable housing in National Parks

Defined as new housing made available at lower than current market price to reflect local ability to pay, “affordable housing” is seen as one way of helping local people to stay close to the communities in which they grew up, often providing important services within those communities. Accordingly, planning policies are often more favourably disposed towards the provision of such dwellings than to new four or five bedroom houses, more likely to be bought by “incomers”. And especially so in the national parks, where there will usually be a presumption against building large numbers of new houses.

Because they do not yield the same profit as “market” housing, the building of affordable homes is often subsidised by the former, and planning authorities require an appropriate contribution to affordable housing. Government has consulted recently on establishing a size threshold (minimum 10 houses), below which a new development would not be required to make any financial contribution to affordable provision. Our concern is that house prices in the national parks are generally higher than elsewhere and the need for affordable homes is marked. Also, most new housing developments in the parks tend to be small, so the removal of this obligation for small developments to make a contribution could make it more difficult to provide the level of affordable housing needed to support local communities. Through our national “umbrella” body, the Campaign for National Parks, we have submitted our objection to this proposal in terms of its application in national parks.  Click HERE to see the full CNP response.

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A Revamp for English Heritage

The government has been consulting on a possible shake-up for its building conservation watchdog, English Heritage, including the creation of a charitable arm to manage its property portfolio. The Society’s submitted response is below.

 

English Heritage New Model: Consultation: Comments of the South Downs Society

 These are the comments of the South Downs Society, the national park society for the South Downs National Park. The Society has approximately 2,000 members and its focus is fundraising and campaigning for the conservation and enhancement of the landscape of the national park and its quiet enjoyment. The work of English Heritage is extremely important in contributing to those aims and to the achievement of national park purposes. This society welcomes any moves that will strengthen that work and will, accordingly, be very concerned about any action that might serve to weaken it.

We afford a cautious welcome to the proposal to establish a charitable arm to look after the property portfolio if this facilitates enhanced conservation, interpretation and enjoyment of the properties as well as safeguarding the statutory work. It remains to be seen of course whether the new financial model for the charitable arm is financially sustainable and the funding available to the new Historic England is sufficient to guarantee continuing service delivery. The sum of £80 million on offer to the charitable arm is in itself inadequate to do what is necessary to conserve the heritage assets which would be the responsibility of the new charity, and it will not be acceptable to divert national funding away from other essential conservation work to provide this sum.

We welcome the words in para 4.6 of the consultation document about the need for the revamped Historic England to be “confident”, “independent”, “impartial” as well as “expert”, “constructive”, “visionary”, “proactive”. Time will tell whether all of these can be delivered. The new organisation should, like the property owning charity, be adequately endowed to ensure a strong organisation. For example, English Heritage’s recent record on the listing process for buildings of particular historic or architectural merit has been slow and must be improved. This society and others will keep the work of Historic England under review.

We note that the success criteria for the property owning charity (para 3.29) list in first place the need to remove government funding. We would have preferred to see the other two (“added value”, “increased visitor numbers and satisfaction”) come above that.  We are apprehensive about any government offering, as its prime aim, the opportunity for a public body to become more self-funding.

We would wish to see an undertaking that the revamped body can still be an owner or funder of last resort for important heritage properties under threat.

 

 

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The Society welcomes removal of overhead power line at Cocking

Southern Electric Power Distribution has taken down unsightly overhead power lines which marred the appearance of the otherwise picturesque downland village of Cocking, particularly views of the 11th century church. This scheme had been put forward by the Society and we have been swift to congratulate all those concerned.

The link below will take you to a press release from the South Downs National Park Authority which describes the scheme.

http://www.southdowns.gov.uk/about-us/news/press-notices/overhead-power-lines-removed-in-south-downs-village

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The Society reports on the performance of the National Park Planning Committee

National Park Planning Committee Performance Review 2013 prepared for the South Downs Society

The South Downs Society’s action plan for 2013 included a requirement for a report to its Planning and Conservation Committee at the year end on “the extent to which the performance of the National Park’s Planning Committee has been consistent with national park purposes”. This is the first occasion on which this task has been undertaken – other than anecdotally – so the methodology is experimental.

For this task the Society has scrutinised the decisions of the Planning Committee at each of its monthly meetings during 2013, categorised them very roughly in terms of significant and less significant development proposals, compared them with its own submitted comments and also with the recommendations in the reports of the NPA officers. The position is complicated by a number of factors:

  • It would not be reasonable to conclude that any decision not to the liking of the Society must automatically be contrary to national park purposes: planning issues are rarely black and white, are subject to personal – though trained – perspective, and members of the Planning Committee may apply varying emphasis to the two purposes and statutory duty of park designation.
  • Not all of the planning applications which come before the Planning Committee for determination will be of major significance. Now that four local authorities have withdrawn from the delegation agreement with the NPA, the latter is now responsible for decisions on all applications, both major and minor, in those districts and some of these will come before members, rather than being determined by the officers under delegated powers. This exercise covers only those applications which have come before the Park Planning Committee monthly meetings.
  • The exercise has not considered the comments made by the Committee to neighbouring planning authorities on applications outside the park.
  • The Society’s own submitted comments are not always related to the most significant applications. Submissions are largely down to the efforts of individual District Officers (DO) of the Society, some of whom may be able to deploy more time than others. There are significant parts of the national park in Hampshire where the Society has no DO coverage, and there have been some significant applications in those areas.

 

Findings

  1.  A total of 51 determinations were made by the Planning Committee in 2013. Some of these related to the same sites eg a proposal to demolish a building in a conservation area and replace it has hitherto required two separate applications, or a proposal that affects a listed building has required a separate approval because of that status. More than 51 applications have appeared on the Committee’s agenda but a number have been withdrawn or deferred for further information.
  2. Of these 51:

32 were recommended for approval by the case officer and approved

10 were recommended for refusal and refused

8 were recommended for approval but refused

1 was recommended for refusal but approved

  1. Of the 51, around 16 were of particular interest to the Society – eg more than two dwellings involved, a school, a hotel and retail units, a travellers’ site, a nursing home, a visitor centre, holiday homes, a vineyard pressing centre, large farm buildings. This categorisation has no formal basis but these applications raised significant issues, including the extent to which they met national park purposes. By their nature the Society was more likely to have expressed concerns than support.
  2. Of these 16:

5 were recommended for approval and were approved. The Society had written in support of one of these (National Trust’s conversion of its hotel at Birling Gap to improved visitor facilities) and expressed concerns on none of them.

4 were recommended for refusal and were refused. The Society had objected to two of them (Durand Academy’s expansion plans for St Cuthmans school and further developments at a nursing home near Fernhurst) but made no comments on the other two (both were housing developments in Hampshire without DO coverage – but they were rejected anyway).

6 were recommended for approval by the case officer but rejected by the members of the Committee. The Society had objected to four of these (listed building consent at St Cuthmans, the demolition and new build at the magistrates’ court building in Lewes, and a major mixed development in Southdowns Road, also in Lewes). The Society had submitted comments but no formal objection on a proposed vineyard pressing centre near Petworth, feeling that it might support the local rural economy.  The Committee concluded that there was no overriding reason for it to be located within the national park and it would be utilising grapes not only from the vineyard itself but also those harvested elsewhere. The final application of the six in this category was for housing in Hampshire where the Society currently has no DO presence.

1 application was recommended for refusal by the officer but approved by the Committee. This related to a proposal for industrial scale, new agricultural buildings at Iford in the Ouse Valley. The Society had objected, along with local residents, and addressed the Committee in support of the officer recommendation, but the members overturned the recommendation and declined even to take up the applicant’s  offer to discuss a more sensitive location.

 

Summary

In summary, and also having regard to some less statistical observations:

  1. The deliberations of the Planning Committee are usually thorough and are informed by a group site visit. Members clearly have varying perspectives and frequently express conflicting views, but the purposes of national park designation are a constant background to decision making.
  2. The Society is listened to. It is selective about which items to speak on but does so more frequently than any other body. It often lines up in support of parish councils, local residents and others. Its submitted and oral comments are frequently referred to in the officer reports and in member discussion. Members of the Planning Committee have indicated that they appreciate the Society’s presence at the meetings.
  3. The Society has a good record of engaging with the most significant applications which come before the Committee, particularly where there is an active DO presence.
  4. The great majority of the Committee’s decisions, both major and minor, are in line with the Society’s aims and its submitted comments – even when the officer recommendations took a different line (St Cuthmans, the Lewes courts and Southdowns Road). Iford Farm remains a notable exception, with the Society’s support for the officer recommendation failing to secure Committee agreement.
  5. The Society has issued press releases and had letters published in local papers indicating when it has welcomed the position taken by the Committee as well as when there has been disagreement.

 

 

In considering the above report at its meeting in January 2014, the Society’s Planning and Conservation Committee made the following points:

  • Use of the NPA’s website for responses to planning applications had improved during the year but there remained problems and delays.
  • The NPA’s generation of “paperwork” through policy and strategy development and the associated consultation processes made heavy demands on the time and resources of stakeholders as well as the NPA, while additional resources were needed in areas such as planning enforcement.