Who will safeguard the future of Kipling's Downs?

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The Independent Online
New legislation is being sought to safeguard the management of Rudyard Kipling's "blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs".

The Sussex Downs were one of the 12 areas earmarked for National Park status in the Forties. The rolling hills of the area, from the dramatic chalk cliffs of Beachy Head to the softer, wooded country near the Hampshire border, attract 32 million visits a year.

But ploughing up Downland pasture for food production and urban development later caused the Downs to be dropped from the park list. So too were the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, but they rejoined the family in 1989.

Now there is talk of the Downs again becoming a park, if only to protect the Government grant that the Sussex Downs Conservation Board has enjoyed in recent years. The 400-square-mile area is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, giving it a level of protection similar to that of a National Park.

But since the Board was set up as an experiment in 1992, half its pounds 1.2m annual budget has been met by the Countryside Commission. This experiment comes to an end in 1998 and now the search is on to ensure that funding will continue. Discussions are under way on the best legislative route.

Landowners jib at the idea of a National Park, and local authorities - which fund the other half of the budget - do not want to lose their planning powers to a fully-fledged park.

The very fact that the Board is not a "say no" planning authority, and has been able to work with farmers, helping them to secure grants for conservation, lies at the heart of its local popularity.

The Board has the "right to be heard" in planning issues, but it remains to be seen whether this will be enough in the battles that lie ahead. These concern Brighton and Hove Albion's plan to build a stadium and shopping centre at the foot of the Downs, and a possible attempt to drive the A27 - the "secret motorway" of the south coast - close by the Iron Age hill fort of Chanctonbury Ring.

Both developments threaten the integrity of those "whale-backed Downs".