The fight for our Sussex countryside

I am privileged to represent the Arundel & South Downs constituency, One of the most beautiful in England, much of its 250 square miles falling within the South Downs National Park. Attending the National Trust’s exhibition of ‘Turner and the Age of British Watercolour’ at Petworth in January, I was once again reminded of the historic value of a landscape that has been portrayed by many of our greatest artists.

There are undoubtedly challenges and pressures in Britain’s most populated National Park. For instance, I’ve led opposition to ill-judged proposals by Forest Enterprise to build lodges in 77 acres of woodland at Madehurst, warning that it would transform a large area of natural woodland to become a suburban-style theme park. At least normal planning processes in the Park, which rightly enjoys the highest level of landscape protection, should see bad ideas like these off.

I am rather more concerned about what’s happening outside the Park, where the countryside is less protected and where development pressures are rising.  It has not been all bad news. At its best, Neighbourhood Planning, introduced under the Localism Act 2011, has given communities more control over where development goes, with decisions validated democratically through a local referendum. It has been interesting to see that local people have responded positively to the opportunity to think about what they want in their villages rather than what they don’t want.

But there’s been growing concern that Neighbourhood Plans have been undermined by speculative developers who have been able to ‘game’ the system, breaking through the Plans by claiming that local authorities have an inadequate five-year land supply while cynically contributing to that situation by failing to build themselves. I worked with the CPRE’s national team to raise this issue in Parliament, and I’m delighted to say that the Planning Minister responded by agreeing to some of our proposals and announcing a change to give greater protection to Neighbourhood Plans.

Problems remain where councils have failed to adopt a Local Plan, while the housing numbers they must provide for have increased as every year goes by, reflecting a rising population and demand. We can expect even more pressure from rumoured changes in the imminent Housing White Paper. The root of the problem is a shortage of housing, exacerbated by regional imbalances which sees demand concentrated in southern counties like our own. The solutions are complex, but a crude relaxation of planning controls is not one of them.

In the small towns and villages of my constituency, local infrastructure is already inadequate, reflected for instance by oversubscribed local schools and extended GP waiting lists. Random development has exacerbated these problems, and construction is eroding the green space between villages, leading to the slow suburbanisation of once rural areas. Yet young people face the unfairness of high rents and property prices that are completely out of their reach.

One idea is to build new towns rather than extend villages, but these must have local support. The proposed Mayfield new town near Henfield is the worst example of a poorly located scheme that is rightly opposed by every local council. The plan has blighted local properties while its promoters have persistently sought to overturn local plans in an attempt to insinuate their own proposal. It is the wrong way to get the housing we need.

No development is free from dispute, just as there is no uncontroversial means to generate energy. Fracking obviously carries risks to the countryside, and I have worked to ensure that it does not damage the South Downs, but in the eyes of many people wind turbines and solar panels can despoil the landscape, too. Even the offshore wind generation off the Sussex coast has had its opponents.

And then there are roads schemes. This summer, Highways England will consult over routes for the Arundel Bypass. I would urge people not to assume that the bypass is bad simply because a small section will go through the National Park. This part is not chalk downland, but an area of replanted woodland at the southernmost extremity of the Park. The A27 already runs through the Park for much of its route, including at Arundel. Crucially, a bypass is needed to stop rat - running not just through the historic town but through the National Park’s downland and villages, which is why there is such strong local support for the scheme. Storrington’s high traffic levels give it some of the worst air pollution in the country.

The alternatives are all less palatable: a bypass that misses the Park but damages the villages of Walberton and Binsted, or one that cuts right through Arundel, which would be deeply unpopular, or no bypass at all, which would mean continuing delays and traffic diverting through the Park. Not all road schemes need be bad. I have proposed that a beautiful bridge is built over the Arun, just as a British architect, Norman Foster, designed the sensational Millau Bridge over the River Tarn in France.

If we could learn to build beautifully, much concern about development of all kinds would be mitigated. After all, it wasn’t Bath on which John Betjeman wanted friendly bombs to fall. No-one says that Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge despoils the Avon Gorge. The Balcombe Viaduct is a stunning Sussex landmark. I am a member of Respublica’s ‘Backing Beauty Commission’, a campaign to put beauty, placemaking and community participation at the heart of local planning and wider public policy. It would only take a little imagination to achieve these goals.

As we struggle to meet the economic demands of a rising population, we must remember that is in the national interest to protect the countryside, too.

In my office at Westminster I have a print of Frank Newbould’s famous wartime poster of the South Downs. “Your Britain – Fight For It Now” urges the slogan. It is significant that a love for our countryside was deployed to incite a patriotic fervour. The landscape is indeed a part of our national identity. Today we face a different kind of battle for the countryside, one which I will continue, alongside the CPRE, to join.

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