Clarity on the downland sell-off? It’s like pulling teeth…

Our Co-ordinator, Andy Durling, gives his immediate response to the release by Eastbourne Borough Council of its official responses to some of the questions raised about the proposed sale of Eastbourne’s public downland:

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Quietly, just before Christmas, without telling the press, let alone us, Eastbourne Borough Council placed on its website its responses to the many questions people had about the proposed sale of most of the Eastbourne Downland Estate that’s been in public ownership since 1929.

Unfortunately, the responses raise more questions than they do in providing answers, and they are full of evasions, excuses and erroneous claims. It’s too early to give a full, point-by-point rebuttal (although rest assured that will come), but it’s clear that the council continues to display a stunning lack of transparency and honesty in its public account of the downland sale process.

For example, in its response to the query about what the covenants are on the farms to be sold, the council simply refers us to the Land Registry, providing a web address that is not even clickable (you have to copy and paste the link into your browser!).  The link takes you to the home page of the Land Registry where you will then have to launch a search for the covenants yourself (no helpful instructions provided by the council!) and if you find any file, you’ll have to pay the standard Land Registry fees for accessing the actual information in that file. Now why could the council not simply provide the information about the covenants on its website? Or invite people to come along to the council offices to see the covenants for themselves? For free, of course. After all, a proper public consultation would allow us to easily see what the covenants are, especially as the council sets such store by them and keeps reassuring us that those covenants provide all the protection for the downland that is needed. Fortunately, local lawyers kindly acting pro bono have already looked at the covenants issue in depth and given us a legal opinion that shows the council’s faith in covenants as a way of protecting downland after it’s sold is entirely misplaced.

In section 2.2 under the question “what protection will there be for the farmers?”, the council says that “all of the farmers have rights of tenancy and in some cases, that equates to a lifetime tenancy. Only the freehold of the farms is being proposed for sale, so the existing leases would continue as now”. Technically the answer is correct, but evades the point that some of the tenant farmers are not on lifetime tenancies but are only on 10 year Farm Business Tenancies, which means that after the 10 years is up, their tenancies could be ended by whoever holds the freehold of the farms at that point. Indeed, a new private owner is under no obligation to have a tenant farmer at all once such a tenancy ends! This kind of evasiveness, this inability to tell the whole truth, is typical of many, if not most, of the responses the council has provided. Furthermore, we are, it seems, not allowed to know what the present tenant farmers feel about the proposed sale of their farms. I wonder why?

Staying on the subject of farming, it’s important to note that the farmers aren’t just business people trying to make a living from the land, but also stewards of the land on our behalf, working within the council’s Downland Management Plan to ensure that the landscape remains wildlife-friendly and very much the traditional chalk downland landscape that we love to visit and enjoy. In section 2.4, in response to the question “would other types of farming be allowed on the farms once they are sold?” there is a very grudging admission by the council, carefully worded, that indeed there might be new types of farming on the land after a sale, and that the council could not influence what type of farming that would be. The council points to various restrictions on what types of farming would be possible but can’t categorically say that there would be no change from the present farming regime. This is a crucial point, because who owns the freehold of the farms ultimately controls the long-term management of the land, including the type of farming that takes place there. Yes, there are limitations. Yes, permissions may be needed from various agencies. But that still leaves a lot of leeway for farming to change, and perhaps change radically. For example, all the downland farms at present are in Countryside Stewardship Agreements that ensure that wildlife-friendly farming takes place. There’s nothing to oblige new owners of the farms to  enter into new agreements when the current ones end. If they are in pursuit of other goals, such as maximising profits from the land, they might choose not to be restricted by agreements that benefit wildlife and nature generally.

Still, at least the council is moving on slightly from just blithely claiming that the farms will still stay as farms after a sale, so what’s all the fuss about! But as far as getting any clarity from the council about its downland sale, it’s like pulling teeth, is it not?

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