This month you may be surprised to know, that is the 50th anniversary of the Countryside Act 1968, which allowed for the creation of our Country Parks. These have played a crucial part in allowing people to visit the countryside, spend the day exploring, getting away from the hustle and bustle, or perhaps to introducing their young families to the great outdoors.
There are more than 400 recognised Country Parks in England and Wales, attracting millions of visitors a year. The majority are owned and run by local authorities but there is a real risk that cuts to green space budgets for staff, maintenance and a lack of funding and investment will mean that increasingly, some country parks will and indeed are facing decline in the coming years.
Recently, there were two article on the BBC’s Countryfile programme of August 12th 2018 highlighting the dilemma of East Sussex County Council (ESCC). From its budget of £371M per year, its 10 countryside sites cost in the region of £400K per year – and that is currently with insufficient staff to carry out all the necessary work. The two largest sites that they manage are the Seven Sisters Country Park at Exceat near Seaford and Chailey Common Local Nature Reserve, (the latter which they do not own). The ESCC is currently reviewing how to manage these important sites in the future bearing in mind that in the coming financial year they have got to find another £17M of savings. See the following link for further details:
Of particular concern to me is the Seven Sisters Country Park – one of the earlier and larger country parks created; it is already being poorly managed through government-induced cuts incurred by ESCC and a lack of supervision of the huge subsidy that the current farm tenant receives because of the emasculation of the government’s own conservation organisation, English Nature. The conservation value of this Country Park now falls far below of what it was decades ago. Options to be considered leading on from the above report include various combination of shared responsibility to the out-right sale of the property.
I have worked in countryside management and conservation for 40 years, half of that time being closely involved with the Seven Sisters Country Park. Based upon that experience and in particular having worked with both the front runners for involvement in the Country Park – the Sussex Wildlife Trust and The National Trust, I would say after careful consideration and without reservation, that The National Trust’s involvement with managing at least, the landscape and conservation elements of this large and popular countryside site would be far and away my preferred option. The National Trust already has a large landholding within the vicinity of the Seven Sisters Country Park – Birling Gap, Crowlink, Gayles Farm, Exceat Salting, half of Chyngton Farm, Frog Firle and The Clergy House. They have the in-house experience of managing buildings and visitor services, they holding an international reputation in this field. They also have an outstanding countryside team based at Birling Gap who manage their wider countryside estate, which has access to a wide field of specialist advisers – archaeology, farm management, vegetation etc.