Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:03 pm on 12th January 2021.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point, as a fellow representative of a constituency that contains part of the national park and as someone with personal experience in the space of healthcare. We have probably never needed those green spaces more than now to protect so many people’s mental health.
Before I move on, I should also acknowledge my predecessor, now appropriately enough the noble Lord of South Downs, whose tenure covered the birth of the national park, and his continuing support to me. I hope that with such passionate representation, and with voluntary groups such as the Friends of the South Downs and many residents in both Houses, the park never lacks for support or a national voice.
The South Downs is unique in many ways. Perhaps most graphically, it is the only national park that someone could be strolling through in less than an hour and half’s time from London, via the gateway stations of Pulborough or Amberley. Perhaps when the current restrictions are lifted, I will be able to invite you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and hon. Members to join me in doing that—I promise you that you will not be disappointed.
About 110,000 people live within the park, which is more than live in the Lake District and the Peak District combined. A further 2.2 million live right on its doorstep, with another 4 million within an hour’s drive. That position, right on the frontline of the over-developed south-east, makes it vital that the planning policy protections of the park are not eroded by this or any future Government. Indeed, if we are to avoid what I have referred to previously as the “Central Park effect” of intense development right up to the boundary, the planning system for national parks, which was set up 70 years ago in the context of some of the most remote parts of the UK, should now go further and establish buffer zones against development and green corridors for wildlife.
When we think of the South Downs, we picture the idyllic hilltops and ridges of the Chanctonbury Ring, Bignor hill or Devil’s Dyke, but we must not overlook the high streets and small industrial units in the park that are its beating economic heart, providing employment and a vital sense of community. I refer to high streets such as those of Petworth and Arundel, in my constituency, as well as those of Midhurst and Lewes, which are full of unique small businesses, retailers and food producers. They need our support, whether through sensible planning policies, exhortations to shop local or initiatives such as the one-hour free parking offered by Chichester District Council in Petworth.
But there is one more thing that we need to do. This came up today when I was glad to co-sponsor a Bill on the subject promoted by my hon. Friend Kevin Hollinrake: we must look again at business rates, which tax place rather than profit and discriminate unfairly between business models in spreading the burden of taxation. If the price of fairness is to replace business rates with a higher rate of sales tax, to me and many businesses across the South Downs that would be a price worth paying.