ARRT at the heart of the South Downs National Park

Sir Sebastian Anstruther

Ten years ago, a few of us decided to form the Arun & Rother Rivers Trust (ARRT), one of a nationwide network of trusts set up to protect our rivers and streams. That same year, the South Downs National Park (SDNP) came into being and I was privileged to be one of the original members of the Authority – the board that runs the National Park.
To begin with it seemed that ARRT and the SDNP might only have their geography in common, with the new National Park running straight through the middle of our “Arun and Western Streams” river catchment. Yet it soon became clear that much more bound them together.
The new National Park (NP) had a whole river running within its boundary (if you allow the “Western Rother” to be a river in its own right). What’s more the South Downs chalk is a huge natural water treatment plant and reservoir rolled into one. Rain water percolates slowly through the chalk and then sits within it, in the aquifer which provides clean drinking water for over a million people between London and the South Coast.

The Western Rother flowing through pastures at Shopham

National Parks have to find a way of bringing communities and businesses together to protect the environment, including the water environment. So they are a natural fit with Rivers Trusts and in fact work closely with them all over the country. The South Downs is the most economically active and intensively farmed of any of the UK’s protected areas. The joint Conservation Board, which had looked after the Downs before the SDNP was formed, had worked closely with farmers and land managers for many years, so the new NP had a firm foundation to build from. We wanted to help them.

As the Park was coming into formation I had worked with others to establish the South Downs Land Managers’ Group, to represent all the farmers and landowners within the new Park’s boundary. A common thread began to emerge: bringing together those who owned and farmed the South Downs and the Western Weald with the organisations responsible for looking after and improving it. Those responsible organisations – the Environment Agency, Natural England and the new Park Authority – were branches of Government with statutory enforcement powers, yet without the ability to make changes to the landscape by themselves.

As a charity, the new Rivers Trust had no powers except the power of persuasion. We hoped ARRT could bridge the gap between these statutory agencies and the people on the ground whose management of the land and water, good or bad, made the real difference. We wanted ARRT to be a “safe space” where everyone could come together to understand the drivers for their behaviour – the constraints and opportunities that made things happen. Everyone seemed to welcome this new way of working, and we soon began to see how ARRT and the SDNP could help each other.

The details of how this working relationship has developed over the first ten years of the Rivers Trust and the National Park will be the subject of future blogs. They include the successful bid for EU Interreg funding to test ways of working with our local water companies, and the formation of the Rother Valley Farmers’ Group.
I retired as Chairman of ARRT last year, and will step down from the SDNP Authority in 2020, knowing that I leave both organisations in good heart. I look forward to watching the relationship develop!