When Cllr Liz Kitchen, the Horsham District Councillor for Rusper and Colgate, became a founder member of the High Weald AONB Joint Advisory Committee back in 1988, she may not have anticipated that this association would last for the next twenty five years (and counting).
"At the start we were a disparate group of people drawn from the High Weald's four county councils and eleven local authorities." Liz reminisces. "No one really knew what it was all about. At that time the officers were almost all planners. Now there is a better balance between planners and environmentalists."
Liz sees this as a healthier mix, though technical advice on landscape still lies at the heart of the AONB's activities.She views over-development as the biggest threat to the character of the High Weald, while accepting that the countryside must move forward and evolve.
"There needs to be flexibility. I don't want leisure complexes and housing estates springing up all over the High Weald, but without some sympathetically-managed development the countryside will die."
Liz is full of praise for the way in which the High Weald AONB team has punched above its weight and gained national respect, as a result of its willingness to create good working relationships with small business, landowners and its partners – sometimes a delicate task.
"The way the AONB Unit has gelled together by working with landowners - rather than telling them what to do - makes me particularly proud. Country folk don't like being told by townies to be greener. In my opinion the great majority of landowners are grateful for the Unit's advice on managing their landscape and its special character."
One of the highlights of the last twenty years for Liz was the appointment of Sally Marsh as director of the High Weald AONB Unit (now a very successful job share with Jason Lavender).
"Some of the more traditional members thought Sally was too much of a 'greeny'. But I could see she was full of exciting ideas and enthusiasm, which has proved to be true."
Some of the stand-out projects initiated during this period include the history behind the drovers' roads, assessing and promoting the character of the High Weald, woodland management, and the Weald meadow harvesting initiative.
"When I first joined the JAC I didn't honestly think it had much chance of success – different authorities, different political allegiances, different geographical characteristics. To start with, this diversity was a weakness - but now it's a definite strength."
Alongside the county councils and local authorities, the non-elected members of the JAC – including Natural England, CLA, Forestry Commission and NFU – have added an important balance. The group doesn't tend to divide along political lines.
Liz has served as chair of the JAC; the first district representative to do so (initially the chair came from one of the four County Councils). Originally the full High Weald Forum met once or twice a year; but now a smaller, more focused Management Board meets quarterly. "Half the size, twice as effective." Says Liz, who has been on the Management Board since its inception.
As for the future, Liz sees funding as the greatest threat to the AONB.
"Public Sector cutbacks mean that the Unit will need to continue bringing in outside funding – something it has been very good at. As the economic outlook improves, I hope the government will recognise the importance of continuing to finance all of our AONBs."