So now we know: a central plank of Eastbourne Borough Council’s defence of its proposed sell-off of nearly 3,000 acres of the Eastbourne Downland Esate, purchased by the town in 1929 to be held in the public interest “in perpetuity”, has been shredded. And shredded in about the most comprehensive and definitive way possible.
And what was that central plank of defence? The claim, repeated frequently by Councillor David Tutt, Leader of the council, that there’s nothing for us to worry about concerning the future of the Eastbourne downland once most of it has been sold off, because the land will be protected by ‘covenants’ – legal restrictions and conditions written into any contracts of sale, supposedly binding landowners to do what is necessary to protect the land from damage or destruction.
But as of yesterday a legal opinion obtained by the Keep Our Downs Public campaign has completely undermined the council’s notion of covenants as being an effective legal device for protecting what is a rare and fragile landscape. The Initial Legal Review concludes by saying that the council’s claim of “140 pages of covenants” being an adequate protector of the downland after a sell-off “appears to be inaccurate and misleading”. That’s about as close as a lawyer can get to saying that the council has been telling a bunch of porkies about covenants! The only useful thing that the council can do with its “140 pages of covenants” (do they even exist? can we even get to see them?) is to recycle them within town hall as toilet paper, thus saving on council expenses.
The Initial Legal Review is worthy of careful study because it’s not the usual dry legal scrutiny of a specific legal point about covenants, crucial though that is, but also a document that highlights the most important reason why the Eastbourne public needs to keep control of the Eastbourne downland: the land needs proactive management, something no covenant can make a private landowner do. Why ‘proactive management’? Because, as the council’s own original Downland Management Strategy says, “Cessation of management on parts of the area during the last 70 years have shown how quickly vegetation changes can degrade the area’s historic landscape and wildlife habitats. If features of importance are to be maintained for future generations, then management practices designed to maintain them must continue”. Yet, on day one after any sell-off of the downland farms, the council’s original Downland Management Strategy for all 4,200 acres becomes unenforceable, useless, thrown into the dustbin of history, or – more usefully – recycled as yet more toilet paper within town hall.
I think it’s worth quoting at length from the Initial Legal Review on this issue of ‘proactive management’, because it goes to the heart of how important the Eastbourne downland is in terms of our natural heritage and protecting what little biodiversity is left in our natural world, especially when ever more severe climate change impacts will put wildlife even more under threat:
The State of Nature Report (Second Report, Sept 2016) shows that the UK’s wildlife is generally in a state of decline. For example 15% of 8,000 of our our native species are now facing extinction. As owner of two farms totalling nearly 3,000 acres, EBC [Eastbourne Borough Council] is in the position where it can, by adopting good practices, play it’s part in stopping this decline and actively help native wildlife. By not engaging in this vital process, EBC will be neglecting its moral responsibility to look after its local wildlife. Even if EBC were to have restrictive covenants in force, that were adhered to by successive owners, it could do nothing to ensure that positive measures were taken for the benefit of wildlife or the people of Eastbourne.
This is particularly important now as climate change starts to take hold. In the whole of the UK, it is the South East that will be the most affected as temperatures rise and rainfall decreases. To prevent further loss of species active measures will need to be taken. One example would be the planting of certain drought resistant trees. Such measures can only be taken by EBC if it continues to own the freehold.
But there is one covenant that matters. Indeed, it’s the only covenant that matters. The covenant the town of Eastbourne has had with its people since 1929: to hold the 4,200 acres of downland above the town in the public interest “in perpetuity”. Until the council decided late last year, in secret, to sell off the downland farms, it proudly repeated that “in perpetuity” covenant in its own Downland Management Strategy and in much of its tourist literature promoting the Eastbourne Downs. In other words, since 1929 the town had made, and kept, a sacred – almost Biblical – promise to its people to ensure that the Eastbourne downland would always be kept and managed as the beautiful, wild, peaceful, accessible downland landscape that we all love and enjoy, a ‘green lung’ for the town that is as essential, if not more so, as any of Eastbourne’s parks and gardens.
As Trevor Beattie, the Chief Executive of the South Downs National Park Authority memorably summarised on Twitter, the Eastbourne Downland Estate is not a disposable financial asset to be switched from one capital account to another on some bean-counter’s balance sheet, but a core moral responsibility for the council, with a value far greater than can be expressed in mere financial terms, a value derived from the huge social gains and natural capital gains of having a landscape that meets so many tourist, recreational, and wildlife needs, and which helps ensure the long-term sustainability and resilience of the wider Eastbourne economy. Indeed, the true value of the downland we own cannot be calculated because it is literally priceless, beyond price, precious beyond words, captured only by the visionary paintings of people like Eric Ravilious or the poetic words of people like Rudyard Kipling.
The Eastbourne downland is an indissoluble part of Eastbourne’s, and England’s, cultural and natural heritage. It is part of who we are. We own the land not just because our forebears bought it, but because they had the profound understanding, in 1929, that we belong to the land just as much as the land belongs to us.
So, the message to Eastbourne Borough Council is clear: Hands Off Our Downs!
If you’d like to help to save our Downs, please sign our petition and share it as widely as possible. Many thanks!