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Downland Dilemmas
Planning – 22 May 2009

Problems are brewing as ministers and a host of local authorities consider the shape of planning powers and staffing arrangements in the South Downs as it becomes England's tenth national park, Mark Smulian discovers.

The UK's latest national park is by any standards spectacular, comprising a range of chalk hills rearing up across the largely flat South East. But the South Downs is also making its presence felt on planning arrangements across three counties.

It will be run by a national park authority with planning powers. But unlike other national parks, it is neither remote nor sparsely inhabited and its long, thin, east-west shape does not easily lend itself to a single local authority.

The park that environment, food and rural affairs secretary Hilary Benn intends to establish by April 2011 will stretch from Beachy Head in East Sussex to the fringes of Winchester in Hampshire. "National park status can be a real boost for the local economy, attracting new visitors, businesses and investment. But above all, this wonderful countryside will be protected forever for the enjoyment of everyone," he enthuses.

The national park will take in 162,392ha of land and 120,000 residents. It will encroach on the territory of more than a dozen local planning authorities. Their reactions vary, although all are keen to retain their planning powers and functions as far as possible. However, the scope for delegating powers back to the councils is uncertain because of mixed messages from the government.

Mid Sussex District Council went so far as to issue a press release claiming: "The secretary of state takes the view that the park authority should delegate its development control work so far as possible to its constituent local authorities." However, neither Benn's statement on park designation nor the transcript of an interview released by DEFRA say anything so definite.

The experience of the New Forest, which became a national park in 2006, is hardly encouraging for the South Downs authorities. A proposal from New Forest District Council for a joint technical unit to handle both policy and development control was rejected by the park authority. As a result, the New Forest now has two core strategies and two development control teams. The district council looks after the urban area and the park authority the rural hinterland.

At a meeting with DEFRA earlier this month, the South Downs councils pressed their case but received no clear response. Their wish to retain planning control does not derive solely from a desire to hold onto powers because there are practical problems. Although Mid Sussex would lose only a small patch of its district to the park, it fears that it might have to rewrite its core strategy given that it covers an area for which it will no longer be the planning authority.

Lewes District Council director of planning and environmental services Lindsay Frost explains that his authority would need to draw up a core strategy for two areas that will be physically separated - the coastal area around Lewes itself and a rural area north of the downs. The national park will cut a swathe through the middle.

"This will have a major impact on our planning service," says Frost. "It will mean that half our area and one-third of the applications we handle will fall in the national park. It is a geographical fact that we would be grappling with an area that is cut from east to west by a national park but where the social and economic links run north-south through the Ouse Valley."

The councils have put two models to DEFRA. Under the first, the park authority would simply delegate development control back to them. Under the second, local planning departments would continue to process applications and make recommendations up to the point of decision, which would rest with the park authority. "We need to be clear about the legal issues in those options," says Frost.

Mid Sussex head of economic promotion and planning Claire Tester says legal advice from the DCLG suggests that the park authority cannot fully delegate its planning powers to councils even if it wants. As for processing applications to the point of decision, she says: "I don't know that we would want to do that. The way planning fees are at present, we would be spending our taxpayers' money on proposals yet our councillors could not take the ultimate decision on them."

Chichester District Council, which would lose planning control over two-thirds of its area, is probably the authority least sympathetic to the national park designation. Leader Myles Cullen sees "no justification for it" and wants to retain planning powers. "In our part of the national park we determine around 1,500 planning applications every year. Throughout the entire park area the figure is around 4,000 applications. For a newly created authority to resource a planning service at that level would be costly and a considerable logistical challenge," he contends.

West Sussex County Council has voiced fears that the park authority will seek to increase recreational access to the area, bringing an unsustainable rise in tourist numbers. It has called for a somewhat vague "new type of national park" in which councillors take major decisions. "We are getting the councils together to see whether we could work with DEFRA to deliver this. To have two of everything in planning at a time when public spending is under pressure to avoid duplication is just crazy," argues director of community services Richard Perry.

Yet this is essentially the argument that New Forest District Council unsuccessfully deployed four years ago. "We issued an invitation for a joint planning unit covering development control and policy for the whole area," council head of planning Chris Elliott explains. "This did not get as far as details of governance, but there would have been a joint technical unit and we estimated that it would save the two bodies 1 million a year. The national park rejected it and decided it wanted its own set-up."

An attempt to work up a joint core strategy similarly came to grief when the park authority abandoned it after nine months of work. Elliott suspects that it acted as it did because planning is a national park's main power and delegating this would have left it with little to do. He also hints darkly at pressure from established national parks to their colleagues in the New Forest to refuse the offer for fear that councils elsewhere would use it as a precedent for unravelling established planning arrangements. "Don't hold your breath," he advises the Sussex and Hampshire authorities on the prospects for holding on to their planning remit.

"Planning is the only real strategic power that national parks have and there would be very little without it," agrees New Forest National Park Authority head of development control Steve Avery. "The New Forest has just followed the practice of other national parks. The issue of joint working was explored but there would have been issues of accountability if officers were working for two authorities," he maintains.

However, somewhat paradoxically, Avery offers more encouragement than does Elliott to the South Downs councils. "The New Forest is very different to the South Downs, where the logistics might make it difficult for the park to take planning in-house. The New Forest is a much smaller area, but for the South Downs to set up and staff a planning service might be quite complicated," he contends.

Staffing is an unknown quantity at present, but it will be an issue whichever planning model is chosen. Elliott had to transfer six professional and six administrative staff to the park's planning service when it was established. "It was quite a divisive process and took 25 per cent of our staff," he says. Frost adds: "Staffing would depend on whether we do any work in the park area. But we would still be dealing with most applications so I think that our staffing pattern would be similar to what it is now."

The latest addition to the national park family could see planners facing transfers to a new employer, having to manage complex co-ordination procedures, making plans for districts that have been severed or truncated and dealing with potentially conflicting development control policies. New Forest's estimate that 1 million of savings were passed over suggests that the only certainty is that the arrangements will cost a great deal of money at a time when council budgets are already badly stretched.

PARK PROCESSES

It is 60 years since legislation was passed to allow for national parks and the first was created in the Peak District in 1951. The South Downs will become the tenth to be designated in England.

The park authorities' key purposes are to conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of their areas and promote opportunities for public understanding and enjoyment of their special qualities. The Broads Authority, which is constituted slightly differently, also has a duty to protect navigation. Park authority board membership is drawn from councillors nominated by district, unitary and county councils, parish councillors whose nomination must be confirmed by the government and experts of various kinds appointed by the secretary of state. English park boards each have 22 members except the Peak District, which has 30.

In Scotland, directly elected members replace parish representatives. A consultation on extending this system to England took place last year, but environment minister Huw Irranca-Davies signalled last month that change along these lines is unlikely.