Countryside organizations have today welcomed the recommendation that West Sussex County Council should reconsider its position on rights of way in the South Downs National Park. The recommendation was made by the County Council’s environment committee which said they felt the South Downs Society, the Access Forum, parish councils and other county councils should be consulted before a final decision was made.
John Songhurst, Chairman of the South Downs Society, said: ‘We think the County Council’s environment committee has come up with the right recommendation, and we hope Councillor Urquhart will put her decision on hold until there’s been time to consult with relevant groups.
‘One of the most important consultees is the National Park Authority, which will be set up in its shadow form in April. We think seeking the views of the South Downs Joint Committee will also be very helpful to Councillor Urquhart. They have been doing a great job of managing the rights of way in the Sussex part of the Downs for nearly twenty years, and will continue in this role until April 2011.’
Dr Tony Whitbread of the Sussex Wildlife Trust said: ‘Looking after rights of way is part of wider countryside management so it is important to get this right for both landscape and nature conservation. We therefore welcome the environment committee’s recommendation yesterday and are delighted that Council Urquhart is considering wider consultation on the matter.’
Rodney Chambers, Sussex Chairman of the Campaign to Protect Rural England said ‘Sussex taxpayers could lose out if the County Council jump the gun. It is still very early days in the setting up of the National Park, and consultation with all parties will be crucial to getting the best value for money on the public’s behalf.’
Ruth Chambers of the Campaign for National Parks said: ‘While we think that the National Park is best-placed to look after the paths in the South Downs, we welcome Councillor Urquhart’s statement that if the rights of way were managed by West Sussex, the County Council would work in partnership with the National Park, would agree protocols, and would standardize the way paths were managed across the National Park.’
Kate Ashbrook of the Open Spaces Society said: ‘We welcome Councillor Urquhart’s statement yesterday that if the County Council took back the management of rights of way, that decision wouldn’t be set in stone, and could be reviewed in the future.’
Within the National Park statutory responsibility for the maintenance of public rights of way rests with the highway authorities, including West Sussex County Council. Since 1992, day to day maintenance of the paths has been carried out by the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, and more recently by the South Downs Joint Committee, on behalf of both West and East Sussex County Councils.
West Sussex announced on Christmas Eve that it did not intend to continue this arrangement when the South Downs National Park Authority replaces the Joint Committee. County Councillor Derek Deedman called-in the issue, which was considered by the Environmental Services Select Committee on Tuesday 19 January.