There’s a plaque, or rather series of plagues, at Beachy Head commemorating the purchase of the 4,200 acres of the Eastbourne downland by the good burghers of Eastbourne back in 1929. This downland has remained in the hands of the town ever since, protected for the public benefit for nearly 90 years now. In that time countless numbers of people have visited the downland and enjoyed its beauty, its traditional downland landscape, and its wildlife. The intention of those burghers back in 1929 was to keep this land in the hands of the town “in perpetuity”, and Eastbourne Borough Council has taken great pride in repeating this phrase in many of its tourist guides and promotional leaflets over the years.
The phrase even features centre-stage on the first page of the council’s Downland Management Strategy for the period 2012-2017, a strategy sadly now superseded by a new version agreed in 2015 at about the same time the decision to sell off most of the downland was made by the council. Coincidentally, the “in perpetuity” phrase disappeared from the latest version of the strategy. I wonder why?
The “in perpetuity” phrase is extracted from the submission made by the Mayor of Eastbourne at the time to the House of Lords Select Committee when the Eastbourne Corporation Bill of 1926 was making its way through Parliament to eventually become law, and the Select Committee report makes for fascinating reading.
Eastbourne Borough Council may at present be satisfied with the legal advice it claims it has received that it’s OK for them to sell the land because the “in perpetuity” promise was not written into law, but to make a solemn pledge to Parliament and to publicly repeat that pledge for 90 years, right up until the political decision to sell was taken, looks very much like a betrayal of those good burghers of 1929, who acted in good faith to save the chalk downland above the town from been despoiled by the rampant development and insensitive management of the South Downs that was becoming so commonplace in the 1920s.
As so often with situations like these, it is the spirit of the law – in this case the law of the 1926 Eastbourne Corporation Act – that needs to be respected by the present generation of local politicians, not the letter of the law that they can bend to their particular purpose of a one-off capital gain to finance investment projects of their own choosing elsewhere within Eastbourne.