Plea to save Eastbourne’s public downland

OPEN LETTER TO COUNCILLOR DAVID TUTT, LEADER OF EASTBOURNE BOROUGH COUNCIL

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Dear Councillor Tutt,

It has become clear in the last few weeks that many Eastbourne residents are deeply concerned about the proposed sale of all the farms on the Eastbourne Downland Estate, currently managed by Eastbourne Borough Council. Such a sale would transfer over 3,000 acres, 75% of the entire public estate, back into the hands of private landowners and bring to an end the downland management strategy that has, with the expert help of the tenant farmers on the estate and huge amounts of public money under the Countryside Stewardship Schemes, led to successful landscape restoration, increasingly effective wildlife and habitat protection, and quality public access paths over the last few decades.

The public downland is arguably the ‘Crown Jewel’ of Eastbourne’s community assets, much-loved by generations of Eastbourne residents. A walk on the Downs is one of the few things in life that is free and healthy, as well as being mentally and spiritually uplifting. The downland is also much appreciated by generations of tourists from around the world, contributing greatly to the tourist industry that is such an essential part of the overall Eastbourne economy. The downland was purchased by the town of Eastbourne for the public benefit, with public money, back in the 1920s precisely in order to maintain that public benefit “in perpetuity”. With this land back in private ownership, no so-called ‘layers of protection’ will ever be good enough to replace the certainty of protection for the land that currently exists under a democratically accountable public body like our local council. Most of the South Downs has been badly damaged by intensive agriculture since the war, and only small pockets of ecologically healthy downland now exist, mainly in the hands of local councils and charities like the National Trust. To sell off our public Downs is to discard a huge part of Eastbourne’s cultural identity and heritage, as well as giving away control over the future of this part of the South Downs we all love and which helps to make life here worth living.

Most of the council’s downland was originally bought from the two big landowning families who owned – and still own – the Gilbert and Chatsworth Estates. The land was bought off these families precisely in order to protect the downland from them, because they were renowned for being avid property developers with grand schemes for inappropriate developments that would have ruined the traditional downland landscape. The supreme, tragic irony is that these families now have first refusal in the council’s sale of much of this landscape, so some or most of it could fall back once again into the hands of the original aristocratic landowners who built up much of their very considerable wealth primarily through local property development, which is still continuing to this day!

We in Eastbourne Friends of the Earth urge you to order an immediate halt to the proposed sale of the downland farms. We also urge you, after the sale is halted, to initiate a public consultation in which all options can be explored for ensuring that the future of the entire estate remains in public hands without becoming a burden upon an increasingly cash-strapped council understandably struggling to cope with the austerity cuts imposed by the government. We also urge all Eastbourne residents with concerns about the sale to contact their local councillor, and their MP, Caroline Ansell, about their concerns. Time is short for stopping the sale. Once our public downland is gone, it’s gone for good!

If anybody wishes to help the Eastbourne end of the Keep Our Downs Public campaign, please email: info.eastbournefoe@gmail.com

Yours sincerely,

Andrew Durling,
Co-ordinator,
Eastbourne & District Friends of the Earth.

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