In just a few weeks the Keep Our Downs Public campaign has made the Eastbourne public aware of a largely secretive sell-off of most of the 4,200 acre Eastbourne Downland Estate by Eastbourne Borough Council. This land was bought by Eastbourne Corporation in 1929, using funds from a public subscription raised for exactly that purpose, to protect the land for the public benefit in perpetuity.Yet Councillor David Tutt, Leader of Eastbourne Borough Council, intends to go ahead with sale proceedings despite an ever growing tide of public protest, despite a petition that has garnered more than 3,000 signatures so far, despite a queries raised by Eastbourne residents that he has yet to answer fully, and despite a media storm that generates endless bad headlines for the council to swallow.
Councillor Tutt says that the more than 3,000 acres of downland farms that he wants to sell are council assets that are not performing well enough in terms of generating returns on capital invested. Quite apart from the fact that he doesn’t explain what is meant by ‘capital’ in this instance, he misses the point entirely, which is that the downland should not be considered as ‘assets’ at all. As Trevor Beattie, the Chief Executive of the South Downs National Park Authority says with sublime concision, “authorities must be free to dispose of their assets, but countryside sites gifted to them in perpetuity are responsibilities, not assets”. Eastbourne Borough Council has carried out its responsibilities with regards to the downland with distinction over the last few decades, helping to create, with public monies for Countryside Stewardship Schemes, a landscape on the way to recovery from the damage caused by intensive arable farming since the war, and now allowing wildlife to flourish.
When the sell-off is halted, as it will be once the council bows to the inevitable and listens to the public voice over this issue, there will be a need to seize the opportunity to engage the public in a through and wide-ranging consultation about how best to manage the Eastbourne downland for the long-term. A new, positive, dynamic vision of downland management needs to be created in which the huge public benefit derived from the estate, and the significant natural capital gains accrued over the years (no doubt uncosted by the council’s bean-counters!), can be even further enhanced, delivering gains for not only people’s well-being and for wildlife conservation, but also gains for the whole economy of Eastbourne. The town advertises itself proudly as The Gateway to the South Downs, and the tourist economy is very much dependent upon the South Downs as part of its attraction to visitors. That attraction can be enhanced through a variety of ways. Here are just some ideas (and I’m sure others can come up with lots more!):
- Improving access to the downland by improving the amount of open access to it through, for example, gradually converting some of the farmland saved from sell-off to statutory open access, as has happened elsewhere in the South Downs. This would have to happen anyway to some extent as ever more chunks of the cliff-face of the ‘open downland’ – the bit that Tutt doesn’t want to sell – falls into the sea!
- Improving the tourist infrastructure on the downland itself. For example, converting one of the barns on the farmland into a backpacker’s hostel or overnight shelter.
- Setting up ‘forest schools’ on the downland farms, similar to what happens elsewhere on the Downs (eg. Sussex Wildlife Trust runs a forest school at Cuckmere Haven).
- Inviting community farming groups, such as the Ecological Land Co-operative and Sacred Earth, to engage in partnerships with – or provide advice to – the council and the tenant farmers to increase both the productivity of the farmland and/or to enhance the wildlife-friendly farming that already takes place there. This would encourage local people to forge a direct link with local farming and to engage constructively with the reality of local food production, thereby encouraging the very food resilience and sustainability that the council itself says is necessary in the face of ever more severe impacts from climate change and the potential economic shocks from collapses in global financial markets and/or international trading systems.
- To encourage the use of the downland for healthy exercise by making links with local NHS organisations for this purpose, especially now that the new Sustainability & Transformation Plans that are being imposed upon the NHS involves a radical shift of emphasis towards promoting activities that promote health and help keep people out of hospital.
- Encouraging the use of the downland for a range of cultural purposes, such as events that link exploration of the landscape on foot with the incredibly rich artistic, literary, historical and archaeological heritage of the Eastbourne downland. Think of Eric Ravilious and his paintings/drawings in the Towner Gallery linked up more closely with cultural events on the very landscape he painted so evocatively.
All this would help strengthen the already strong sense of place that Eastbourne residents have with their local downland, which is such a key part of Eastbourne’s cultural identity and natural heritage. Our forebears fought to save that downland from imminent despoilation by wealthy aristocratic landowners with wild dreams of whole new towns built upon the sacred, hallowed chalk turf we love so much. Ironically, those same landowners now have right of first refusal on any sale of that same downland! If they exercised that right and purchased some, or most, of it, that would be a tragic case of history coming full circle!
Now we have the responsibility in this generation to carry on the fight to save this priceless downland from a council that currently only sees it as a cash-cow for generating capital flows from one part of its balance sheet to another part. We must hold the council to its responsibility to protect and enhance the downland for this and all future generations, for the well-being of both people and wildlife. For the council to do otherwise would be a profound breach of public trust, a betrayal of the town’s legacy. Does Councillor Tutt really want to go down in history as the man who flogged off one of the Crown Jewels of Eastbourne’s illustrious civic past and present?