The South Downs was first recommended as a National Park in the 1940s, along with 11 other sites such as the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales.
The area is a landscape of rolling open hills, chalklands and heath and includes the impressive white cliffs of Seven Sisters in East Sussex. It's home to rare species including the Adonis blue butterfly and the early spider orchid. It's the only place in the British Isles where all our native reptile and amphibian species are found.
When I visited recently I saw a barn owl flying across the fields early one morning, and at night heard the screech of a tawny owl.
South Downs unprotected
But by the 1990s the South Downs was the only one of the original 12 sites not to have been protected. Objections from local landowners, and criticisms that it had been too intensively farmed, had stalled the creation of a National Park.
Making sure the South Downs was not forgotten became a key campaign aim for local Friends of the Earth groups in the south east.
“We were told that the South Downs wasn’t the ‘right kind’ of area for a National Park,” says Chris Todd, a member of Brighton & Hove Friends of the Earth local group for many years.
“They said there had been too much human interference. It wasn’t rugged and windswept like other National Parks such as the Lake District or the North Yorkshire Moors.”
Save the South Downs
In the 1990s the campaign to get the South Downs recognised heated up.
In 1995 Brighton Council tried to sell off its downland estate. And then, just before the 1997 general election, a local farmer ploughed up a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) at Offham Down.
“His name was Farmer Harmer – you couldn’t make it up,” says Chris.
The destruction of Offham Down sparked local outrage. But Chris and other locals such as Brenda Pollack – who today is Friends of the Earth's South East regional campaigner – realised this was a great opportunity.
The group camped out at the site to protest about its destruction and carried out press stunts such as 'unploughing' the Downs. They contacted local press, wrote submissions to the public inquiry and presented the South Downs Campaign vision to Tony Blair MP at Sussex University in the run-up to the election.
Brighton & Hove local group became influential members of an alliance known as the South Downs Campaign, working alongside people from across East Sussex, West Sussex and Hampshire.
Chris believes Friends of the Earth's main contribution was stamina and dedication. "Friends of the Earth had enough committed people to take advantage of opportunities when they came up. It was a long fight," he says.
Labour went on to win the 1997 general election and when Michael Meacher was made environment secretary, Friends of the Earth Brighton & Hove lobbied him to create a National Park.
Meacher eventually asked the Countryside Agency to draw up plans.
The power of National Park status
National Park status was finally awarded in 2010. The Park now covers an area of over 1600km2 stretching from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in East Sussex.
It means the South Downs now has additional protections, especially when it comes to oil exploration.
Instead of submitting major planning applications to the local council, companies now apply directly to the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA).
Whereas local councils often have other competing objectives for deciding the merit of an application, one of the SDNPA's core purposes is to "conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area".
Applicants are required to meet stringent requirements, which include being able to show that the development is in the national interest.
The power of the SDNPA was first shown in 2014 when Celtique Energie applied to explore for shale oil near the village of Fernhurst. SDNPA planning officials recommended against the application and it was rejected after the authority said there were no exceptional circumstances to justify drilling.
Another show of strength was the authority's recent announcement that it will be challenging plans for a bypass road around Arundel. The road would cut directly through the National Park.
Be under no illusion though, these protections need reinforcing. For example, fracking can still impact national parks because companies can drill under them from outside.
What makes the difference in the National Park cases is that there is a higher bar for developers to reach and this gives local people the opportunity to make a strong case.Brenda Pollack, Friends of the Earth South East campaigner
Protecting Markwells Wood from oil exploration
In 2009 a company called Northern Petroleum was granted a temporary planning permission to drill an exploratory well at another site – Markwells Wood near the tiny village of Forestside.
The application involved a process known as acidising, where chemicals and water are injected into wells to dissolve rock and release oil.
At the time the South Downs was still 2 separate Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This meant that planning applications were still being submitted to the West Sussex County Council.
But in 2010 the regulatory landscape shifted. The South Downs became a National Park. So in 2016, when UK Oil and Gas (UKOG, which had taken over the licence from Northern Petroleum) applied for planning permission to drill 4 new wells, things were not so easy.
Local people were particularly concerned about the impact of UKOG’s plans on nearby water sources. The Environment Agency and the local water company submitted objections to the SDNPA.
And supported by Friends of the Earth, campaign groups such as Markwells Wood Watch objected to large trucks on narrow country roads and the potential effect on wildlife.
Crucially, they argued that oil exploration was contrary to the character and core purposes of the Park.
Just a week before the Park Authority’s Planning committee was due to make a decision, UKOG withdrew its application.
"We believe our case against oil exploration was overwhelming," says Michael Harbour from Markwells Wood Watch.
In March 2018, the SDNPA issued a notice giving UKOG between 2-12 months to restore the site to its former condition.
We’re sure that without the National Park designation we would have been in a very different position.Michael Harbour, Markwells Wood Watch
Oil exploration in the High Weald
Compare Markwells Wood's experience as a protected area with that of Balcombe – a village in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, not a National Park.
This beautiful landscape of wooded rolling hills lies to the east of the South Downs National Park in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It’s estimated that between 2.2 and 8.5bn barrels of shale oil could lie beneath the Weald, although much of it is difficult to access.
In 2013, despite vociferous local objections, Cuadrilla drilled a well at Lower Stumble with a view to using the acidising process to extract oil.
In May 2017 the company reapplied for planning permission through West Sussex County Council to flow test the existing well. This time it was granted by the council in January 2018.
Leave it in the ground
The order to restore the oil exploration site at Markwells Wood is a great example of how campaigns can continue to yield benefits long after they have achieved their original aim.
National Park status has given the South Downs additional defences under UK law. But it still takes determined action by local people to raise awareness that the government continues to allow exploration, even in our most cherished landscapes.
The UK has signed up to reducing greenhouse gas emissions as part of the Paris Agreement. It makes no sense to be prospecting for fossil fuels anywhere – let alone in our National Parks.
“In defending Markwells Wood, we were able to show in a number of ways – from fears over water contamination to the impact on the National Parks' Dark Skies policy – how incompatible industrial development is with protecting our most valued landscapes,” says Brenda Pollack.
You can help us to fight for a fossil-free future and defend more of the UK's most precious landscapes.