West Sussex countryside is priceless asset to be held in trust for future generations
Arundel & South Downs MP Nick Herbert has spoken of the importance of preserving the countryside in West Sussex and the special landscape of the South Downs.
The MP also underlined the importance of farming to the countryside, and the need to champion locally-grown Sussex produce.
Mr Herbert was speaking at the Annual General Meeting of the Sussex Branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England at Plumpton College on Thursday (12 July).
He spoke of the difficulty of balancing economic progress with conservation. It was essential to maintain living standards and extend opportunity to the poorest in society, but the key was to ensure that development was appropriate and sustainable.
There was a need to increase the supply of housing, especially affordable homes for young people who could not get their foot on the housing ladder. However, it was essential also to protect the countryside and ensure adequate infrastructure to support development.
The proposed downgrading of local hospitals and inadequacy of water supplies were a particular concern.
Mr Herbert said that the Government's central housing target, recently increased by Gordon Brown to 3 million homes by 2020, was the wrong approach. Decisions would only be legitimate if local councils were empowered to decide on new housing.
He said: "The British countryside is a priceless national asset. We are merely temporary custodians of it, and it is our duty to ensure that generations after us can enjoy the benefits of rural West Sussex, too."
Turning to farming, the MP pointed out that much of the famous South Downs landscape was shaped, and is maintained, by the grazing of sheep and cattle. He highlighted the decline in dairy farming, with the number of dairy farmers in West Sussex decreasing from 175 to 98 in the past decade alone.
The MP, whose grandfather farmed at Northiam in East Sussex, expressed concern about the increasing reliance on imported food which has seen Britain's food "trade gap" double in the last ten years.
Referring to the issue of "food miles" - the distance that food travels from the farmer/grower who produces it to the consumer who eats it - he pointed out that lorries now travel 5.5 million "food miles" a year and cars 4.2 million. The average adult drives 135 miles a year to shop for food, a figure which is undoubtedly higher in a rural area such as West Sussex.
Mr Herbert spoke of the need to support local farmers and growers, particularly when Sussex is famed for its local produce, ranging from South Downs lamb to increasingly recognised wine.
He said: "The growing popularity of farmers' markets is tremendous, but of course we all still use supermarkets - I am no exception - so I want to encourage them to sell British and especially local produce, too."
Asked about the situation regarding a South Downs National Park, Mr Herbert said that he remained sceptical about the need for a Park, but was studying the Inspector's report carefully.
"Whatever body is in charge, the South Downs will continue to have the highest level of protection. My concern is to ensure that the surrounding countryside in West Sussex, including areas that will be outside the Park on any boundary, are also adequately protected".
Mr Herbert accepted an invitation from the Sussex Chairman, Roy Haycock, to meet urgently with the CPRE, South Downs Campaign Group and South Downs Society to discuss the issue.