Flogging off the Sussex Downs…

Here’s a new article by Dave Bangs, a key member of the Keep The Downs Public campaign, putting the fight to save the publicly-owned Eastbourne Downs in the historical context of the fight over many decades to protect and enhance public downland across the entire South Downs:

Flogging off the Sussex Downs

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In the past months major storms have arisen on the Sussex Downs because of threatened large scale sales of local council owned Downland. On the Brighton Downs the City Council has been ‘reviewing’ its ‘non-core assets’ and attempting to dispose of a series of sites. These include part of a 50 year old nature reserve which is the last county site for the little native Juniper conifer (present on the Downs since the Ice Age); a cave with four resident species of bat; and iconic Plumpton Hill, commanding huge views over the forested Sussex Weald. On the Eastbourne Downs behind Beachy Head the Council has been moving towards the disposal of over 3,000 acres of public Downland which forms the backdrop to the town. It includes numerous prehistoric burial mounds and field systems, a Neolithic hillfort, and large, nationally important wildlife sites for orchids and rare flowers such as the Moon Carrot, which glows white in the darkest night.

On these Downs the local councils are major landowners, having acquired large tranches of land cheaply in the 1920’s, ‘30’s, and ‘40’s during the long agricultural depression. They did so to protect them from rapidly expanding urban sprawl, to protect the chalk aquifer which is the source of their drinking water, and to protect the ancient open sheep walks which walkers and naturalists loved. Whilst they largely failed with the latter objective (because agribusiness farmers ploughed up much archaic grassland that was tractor-accessible) they succeeded with the two former objectives.

The legacy of these conservation purchases is huge. Brighton Council owns some 12,500 acres, Eastbourne Council has 4,200 acres, Worthing Council has c. 500 acres, East Sussex County Council has about 700 acres at Seven Sisters, and Lewes and Adur Councils have several hundred acres between them. This 18,000 acres-plus public Downland forms the backbone public asset within the new South Downs National Park, together with the Forestry Commission’s estates. The National Park Authority itself owns no land. It doesn’t even own a public toilet.

Tragically, the loss of the open sheep walks (depriving the public of traditional access) and the conservative commercial management of the estates by arms-length land agencies like Savills and Strutt and Parker, has meant that the cultural memory of these free and open landscapes has been much eroded. Twenty years ago Brighton Council tried to sell their Downland, but was forced to abandon the proposal by a vigorous campaign. Five years ago Worthing Council abandoned similar sales proposals in the face of militant opposition.

Both councils, with Eastbourne, then ‘came good’ and designated huge tranches of their Downland as statutory ‘freedom to roam’ land. Major changes in Downland management brought in much wildlife and heritage conservation and partially re-created the great sheep walks which gave the South Downs its character. In some areas, such as behind Beachy Head, this amounted to superb measures of finely crafted landscape restoration. This was just what Labour Environment Minister Michael Meacher had in mind when he announced the creation of a South Downs National Park at Party Conference and proposed it would be of a ‘new type’- dedicated to the restoration of a landscape which had lost over 90% of its archaic grasslands.

Within the last two months ‘Keep Our Downs Public’ (KDOP) groups have kicked off in Brighton and Eastbourne. In Brighton we have secured a temporary STOP on the sales, and the policy will be reviewed on 8th December at the key council committee. In Eastbourne, the new KODP group organised a feisty 120-strong town hall picket and a lively semi-public meeting with the Council Leader within its first fortnight. Activists face the task of helping the Council recover the lost memories of its progressive past.

If we lose, the Duke of Devonshire Estates (the old property developers who built Eastbourne) will have a legal right to first refusal on much of the sold land. Rich new owners may exclude us, damage vulnerable wildlife habitat, turn the farms over to game shoots and excluding land uses (like vineyards, solar arrays, private ‘parks’ and ‘horseyculture’, with their CCTV cameras and high fences) and press for incremental built developments .

If we win, we can drive forward more huge gains in public access (over 2000 acres of new access land already around Brighton) and stitch back together the historic landscape’s shattered tapestry of archaic wildflower grassland in a sustainable pastoral economy.

Across the country similar battles are being fought in defence of public land – parks, open spaces and county council small holdings. The stakes are high.

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