Labour Party Conference: Two new National Parks are approved

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THE SOUTH Downs in Sussex and the New Forest in Hampshire are to be declared National Parks to protect some of the most sought-after building land in the country from urban development.

The announcement by John Prescott, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, ended a lengthy wrangle in Whitehall and infuriated the Country Landowners' Association, which represents property owners. But his decision was welcomed by green lobby groups who have warned that rare habitats for birds, animals and insects are being destroyed by intensive farming and development.

Development in the South Downs will be strictly limited by a new planning authority for the park area, which will extend inland from Brighton.

New building will be allowed in the park - the Government has been criticised for earmarking land for housing expansion in West Sussex - but ministerial sources said it would have to be in keeping with the landscape. It could prove highly controversial, if the Government gives the go-ahead to main roads to relieve acute congestion across the new National Park area.

The planned New Forest National Park is less controversial. But one government source said: "If we had not done this today, these areas of outstanding beauty would have been carved up by new development. There is no doubt about that. The pressures are enormous."

Mr Prescott said the move was "a birthday present from Labour to the youth of this country". He recalled childhood visits to the Lake District, "whose sheer wonder and beauty fired my passion to make it available to all in society". The minister added: "Fifty years on, I am privileged to begin the process of creating new National Parks for the new millennium."

Tony Juniper, executive director of the Friends of the Earth pressure group, said other types of protection for wild landscapes such as areas of outstanding natural beauty status were insufficient to save threatened habitats, citing the case of a South Downs farmer who ploughed up a site of special scientific interest in 1997. "It's high time the South-east had some better, open, protected land. "

The Ramblers' Association welcomed the successful conclusion of a 50- year campaign to safeguard the two areas.Kate Ashbrook, an executive committee member, said: "Both the New Forest and South Downs are in desperate need of the extra environmental protection that comes from National Park status and the economies of the local areas will get a much-needed boost."

But Graham Forshaw, leader of West Sussex County Council, vowed to fight the plan, which he said was "a disaster for local people because it would be taking the Downs out of local control".

"Planning decisions for an area stretching from Eastbourne in East Sussex to Winchester in Hampshire would be made by a remote organisation which is not directly elected, rather than by councillors who know about local issues."