Being landed with huge bill is not fair on council

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We’ve always supported the South Downs being awarded National Park status. As well as giving kudos to this area and helping to ensure the protection of beautiful countryside, it should also bring a valuable economic benefit as a result of visitors from home and abroad coming to this part of the world to admire the scenery and spend their money.

But we can’t agree with government plans to force councils covering areas within the park’s boundaries to pay huge sums towards the set-up costs.

The previous government promised that these costs would be paid for nationally.

But now local authorities have been given a nasty surprise – they are being landed with the bill.

Twelves authorities in the National Park are having to pay out according to population, with Chichester and East Hampshire District Councils picking up the highest tabs of £1.1m each.

No wonder East Hampshire leader Patrick Burridge described the charge as a ‘bolt out of the blue’ that had come as a ‘huge shock’.

Councils have to plan their budgets carefully, even more so in this age of belt-tightening. Yet now East Hampshire has suddenly found it has to come up with £1.1m.

The stark result is that luncheon clubs, youth services and charities will lose out and local people will suffer because of £220,000 of service cuts needed to find the cash to help set up the South Downs National Park’s planning department.

Having to pay the £1.1m means the council has struggled to balance its books in this year’s budget, racking up a deficit of £762,000. Reserves have been raided to make up the shortfall.

East Hampshire’s chief executive, Sandy Hopkins, has now written a strongly-worded letter to the Department for Communities and Local Government, disputing the payout.

The council is right not to take this lying down. It deserves a sympathetic response from a government department that cannot have thought through the consequences of its actions.