The Big Question: What are national parks, and why do we have so many of them?

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Why are we asking this question now?

Some 60 years after its 627 square miles of chalk upland and river valleys spreading from Sussex to Hampshire were first recommended for preservation, the South Downs this week became Britain's newest national park. The announcement by the Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, came after years of campaigning and legal wrangling over the areas to be included in the park, which stretches from Eastbourne to Winchester. Conservation groups heralded the decision as proof of a renewed determination in Government circles to extend powerful protection to unique landscapes.

What is so special about the South Downs?

Shaped by centuries of sheep grazing and farming, the Downs have provided inspiration for innumerable admirers. William Blake was moved to describe "England's mountains green" in his poem, Jerusalem, while Rudyard Kipling, a long-time resident, wrote of "our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs". With about 39 million visitors each year, the new national park will be by some distance the most popular in Britain and one of the most visited in the world. Campaigners point out that the location of the Downs in the heart of the South East and sandwiched between the population centres of the south coast and London means it is a vital "green lung" for the region. The unique mixture of habitats, from windswept grassland to coastal wetland, means it is host to important wildlife species such as colonies of Barbastelle and Bechstein's bats, woodland butterflies such as the pearl-bordered fritillary and rare birds including the nightjar and Dartford warbler.

What are the national parks and where are they?

The South Downs will become Britain's 15th – and England's ninth - national park when it becomes fully operational in 2011. The parks were born in 1949 with the National Parks Act, described as "the most exciting Act of the post-war Parliament" and a recreational gift to Britain's returning Second World War service men and women. The first designated areas, established in 1951, were the Peak District, the Lake District, Snowdonia and Dartmoor. Each park is supervised by a National Park Authority, which takes responsibility for areas such as enforcing stringent planning regulations. By law, each authority has to "conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage" of each park as well as promote it to a wider audience and improve the social and economic well-being of the communities within its boundaries. The influence of the parks can be far reaching. Some 20 per cent of the land area of Wales is covered by its three national parks – Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons and the Pembrokeshire Coast. The remaining English parks – the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, Exmoor, New Forest, Northumberland, North Yorkshire Moors and Yorkshire Dales – cover seven per cent of the land mass. Scotland's two parks - the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs – account for seven per cent of the land.

Who thought of them?

In 1810, William Wordsworth arguably planted the seed of the parks by describing the Lake District as "a sort of national property, in which every man has a right and an interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy". It took another 121 years before a British government even held its first inquiry into the creation of preserved spaces as a growing urban population began to seek access to the countryside. This friction between a mobile public and a landowning class long used to its privacy was graphically displayed in 1932 with the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in the Peak District, which led to the imprisonment of five protesters. The breakthrough came in 1947 with the landmark report by Sir Arthur Hobhouse which set out the philosophy for the national parks and put forward 12 suggestions for their location. Noting that every main population centre within England and Wales had to be within easy of a park, Sir Arthur said: "The essential requirements of a National Park are that it should have great natural beauty, a high value for open-air recreation and substantial continuous extent."

Who decides whether there should be a national park?

The genesis of the South Downs National Park would suggest the process of designation is long and tortuous. Natural England and its equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are responsible for the process of gathering evidence and putting the case for a new park. In the case of the South Downs, John Prescott signalled New Labour's support for the project in 1999 but it was not until 2003 that a public inquiry began hearing evidence about the suitability of the scheme. Despite evidence of widespread public support, the park was opposed by six of the 15 local authorities within its boundaries. The final planning inspector's report was presented to the Government at the end of 2008, leaving it to Mr Benn to complete the final stage in the designation process this week by signalling his assent.

What difference do the parks make?

As well preserving the landscape within their boundaries in perpetuity, the parks are credited with providing an economic lifeline to the 433,600 people who call them home. Visitors to the South Downs, which has 165 miles of rights of way, spend £333m a year, of which £178m goes to businesses that employ about 8,000 people in the area. In the Yorkshire and Humber regions, which have the most national park land in England, visitors spend some £400m annually, supporting 12,000 jobs. Overall, the parks contribute an estimated £1.6bn a year to their local economies.

So everyone is delighted with them?

Not quite. Opponents to the South Downs park complained it would hinder the development of infrastructure and put planning decisions into the hands of "an unelected quango". Britain's national parks are unusual in consisting mainly of privately-owned land. Residents of "honeypot" towns such as Keswick in the Lake District and Bakewell in the Peak District complain that the popularity of the parks leads to overstretched services and gridlock in summer months. Soil erosion on popular footpaths and overgrazing by livestock have been identified as significant problems. There is also friction with Britain's armed forces over the continued use of the "national walking grounds" for military training. Campaigners have complained about live firing exercises in three parks and low flying by aircraft.

Are we going to get any more?

The addition of the South Downs means that all 12 of the areas originally identified in the 1947 Hobhouse Report are now designated National Parks. Further large-scale additions are unlikely – Cornwall and the north Pennines were considered and rejected 30 years ago. Conservationists hope to push the case for uniting the Lake District and North Yorkshire parks by extending their boundaries to include all of the Howgills – an area of fell land left out of the original boundaries. In Scotland, there are moves to create Britain's first marine national park covering the Outer Hebrides after the Isle of Harris voted to seek the status as a mean of reversing its depopulation.

So have we now got enough national parks?

Yes...

* This over-crowded island needs all the space it can find for sensitive development

* In 1947, the Government called for 12 national parks. Now we have 15

* National park authorities undermine the accountability of local government

No...

* The preservation of this over-crowded island's dwindling wilderness with new national parks is vital

* The economic benefits of the national parks are considerable, contributing £1.6bn to the economy.

* Marine national parks, well established abroad, have yet to arrive here

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