DOG OWNERS have accused the National Trust of taxing the countryside after announcing that it was introducing a charge for car parks that walkers and people exercising their dogs have used free for years.
One car park, on Harting Down in West Sussex, was given for the free use of the community by a family in memory of its son. It will soon have a pay and display machine to collect a charge of £2 per vehicle.
Despite a trust notice saying, ‘There is free access all over the Down’, it is one of six parking areas on and around the South Downs where charges are to be introduced.
The trust defended its decision by insisting that access was still free; it was only cars it was charging for. Local people can negotiate a free pass, a concessionary rate will be available and trust members can park free.
However, a gathering of daily dog walkers said that during a wet ramble they could reach the area only by car. Some are elderly and the steep walk up from the village of South Harting is too much for them.
Colin Waller, a former county councillor, said as he walked his dogs, Percy and Chester: "This is just another tax on the motorist. Most people can only get here by car and the trust knows that.
"To charge for something that was given to be used free is outrageous. As owners of a wonderful open space, the trust should be maintaining free access, not making money out of people who come to enjoy it."
Denise Oakley, with her black Labradors Adah and Sheba, said that she had been walking on Harting Down since 1939, long before it was acquired by the trust. "It sticks in the throat to be told that I should pay for something that I have used freely all these years," she said.
Most of the 25 walkers present supported her, although several favoured the charge on the basis that the trust had said it would use the money to maintain the down. The majority of Harting parish council members oppose the charge, but Humphrey Sladden, its former chairman, supports it. He is a founder member of Friends of Harting Down, which has worked on conserving the area.
"We have negotiated free passes for everyone in the village," he said. "The income that will be generated is needed to benefit the down. My only regret is that the trust did not consult local people first."
The trust said it had no plans to charge for all of its car parks. Diana Owen, the West Sussex area manager, said it had applied for permission for pay and display machines for Harting, Petworth Park, Devil's Dyke, Crowlink, Birling Gap and Ditchling Beacon, all in West and East Sussex.