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Campaigning for England's newest national park
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice magazine, 2009
Margaret Paren and her colleagues in the South Downs Campaign have been celebrating the government's confirmation this year of the new South Downs national park. It's not just that this beautiful landscape will at last have the official status and protection which many other areas of Britain already enjoy: it's also that the new national park boundary will include a large area known as the Western Weald which nearly didn't make it into the park at all.
Margaret is from the North originally but now lives in the heart of the Western Weald, in Liss. A retired civil servant, she has been active as the Campaign's vice-chair for about nine years, and led the hard-fought battle to ensure that the Western Weald was put back into the national park map, after the planning inspector initially recommended it be taken out.
It was, she says, a major campaign, with many people involved. The task was, among other things, to demonstrate that – despite the inspector's recommendation - the Western Weald landscape was indeed worthy of national park status. Margaret led the team who prepared the detailed case for its inclusion. At the same time the media had to be courted, too. It helped that travel writer Bill Bryson, president of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, was happy to lend his support: “That got the national media interested, and created a lot more local media interest too,” Margaret says.
As part of the changes, two existing Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are to be subsumed within the national park. Margaret's worry was that, if the Western Weald really were to be left outside, its existing AONB status might also disappear as well, leaving the area effectively unprotected. This was a battle, in other words, not just to make things better but also to stop them becoming worse. There was understandable elation when, in March, the government confirmed that the national park was to go ahead, Western Weald and all.
The process of creating a national park is not a quick one, and it is already more than ten years since the then Countryside Agency (now Natural England) advised the government that the South Downs should be given national park status. Partly because of a legal challenge to the creation of the New Forest national park next door, the South Downs designation process took even longer than usual. “I don't think anyone thought for a moment it would take as long as this,” Margaret says. As with so many other campaigns, she and her colleagues had to be prepared to dig in for the long haul.
Coming from northern England, Margaret says that she is familiar with many of the much-loved national parks in the North – but the South Downs, she says, also has for her that same ‘wow' factor. Soon its beautiful landscapes will be given the full protection of national park law, to be looked after and enjoyed as a real national treasure.
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