Phil Belden, who has worked for the South Downs National Park Authority and its predecessor bodies for many years, has retired from the post of director of operations. Those of us who campaign for our national parks to remain wild and free will miss him greatly.
Phil arrived in the South Downs in 1983 after a conservation apprenticeship in 1977 and 1978 on the Dorset Heritage Coast. He worked for East Sussex County Council with the late Paul Millmore, then moved to West Sussex County Council. In 1986 Paul and Phil began to revive the campaign for a South Downs National Park. They had to keep a low profile because of their local authority employers, both of which were opposed to the national park, and it took four years to rekindle the campaign.
Eventually a small gang came together to form the South Downs Campaign (May 1990), led by Robin Crane as chairman and, later, the tireless and tough-minded Chris Todd as secretary; this gradually grew into an influential body representing 160 national, regional and local organisations, including 28 town and parish councils.
The Sussex Downs and the East Hampshire Downs were both designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. By now Phil was working for the Sussex Downs Conservation Board which, in 2005, merged with the East Hampshire Joint Advisory Committee to become the South Downs Joint Committee, managing to the two AONBs.
When at last the South Downs was, joyously, made a national park, Phil was employed by the national park authority—a post he richly deserved, after decades of working vigorously behind the scenes. However, he no doubt found himself too bound to his desk in later years, a fate which seems to befall many of us who prefer being outdoors.
So Phil is a national park and access person to the core, and it is deeply sad that he was made redundant in a restructure of the authority. I often sought his advice in campaigns—access to Cissbury Ring in West Sussex (2009) and Breaky Bottom in East Sussex (2010) for instance. He is keenly aware of the history of our movement and of our national parks, and his frustration at the immense delays in achieving the South Downs National Park, more than 60 years after it was recommended by the Hobhouse Committee, and his joy at the eventual achievement, were as great as anyone’s.
Phil is a rare breed, we cannot afford to lose him from our movement. I hope that in due course he will become a leader in the voluntary sector, front of house at last.