The titanic mistake of Eastbourne Borough Council’s Great ‘Closing Down’ Sale

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Our Co-ordinator, Andy Durling, has this comment to make:

So the good ship ‘Titanic’, chartered by Eastbourne Borough Council, sails on towards its moment of destiny with the iceberg that will sink it into oblivion. For oblivion it will be when the iceberg of legal flaws, public outrage and anti-democratic secret manoeuverings in the dark by the council, shatters the council’s dream of transforming Eastbourne into some kind of south coast economic powerhouse that somehow magically rolls back the tide of austerity and showers us all with a steady, golden stream of jobs and prosperity (with rampant climate change and rising sea levels threatening much of Eastbourne’s very existence, is such a mad dash for economic growth the ultimate ‘pee pee party’?).

I say that dream will be shattered, even if the council gets away with it and pulls off the Great Eastbourne ‘Closing Down’ Sale by successfully flogging off about 3,000 acres of the wildlife-rich public South Downs landscape to whoever has the most cash to offer, regardless of whether or not the buyer has any wish to care for the wildlife and the ecological health of the downland. For the damage to Eastbourne’s reputation as a  protector of a rare, traditional chalk downland landscape that millions of visitors, artists, and tourists from around the world have enjoyed and gained inspiration from over many years will be immeasurable. No longer will Eastbourne Borough Council be able to boast, as it has done for many decades, of having looked after this landscape as a sacred duty of care embodied in the town’s promise to Parliament in 1926 to hold the land for the public benefit “in perpetuity”. The town’s self-conscious branding of itself, at great expense, as being ‘The Gateway to the South Downs’ will be in ruins and its reputation as a tourist destination greatly tarnished.

The council may get its financial wind-fall, but it will lose much of whatever civic stature it had, as it will be forever pilloried as the council which flogged off the town’s Crown Jewels, the Eastbourne Downs, an integral part of the town’s cultural and natural heritage and its prime recreational asset, as well as putting at risk the integrity of the aquifer which provides the town with most of its reliable, clean drinking water. None of the big new shiny building projects in Eastbourne that the ’30 pieces of silver’ from the downland sell-off will help to finance can compensate for the chicanery which which the downland sale has been pursued. If selling nature once more down the river for the sake of short-term economic gain constitutes a victory, it will be a ‘pyrrhic victory’ indeed, not just for the council but for us all.

The council will never be able to escape the charge that it ignored the warning voices of so many experts and civic society groups, ranging from local lawyers, ecology experts like TV star Chris Packham, through to bodies like the Sussex Wildlife Trust, CPRE Sussex, the South Downs Society, the Eastbourne Society, the Meads Community Association, Eastbourne Friends of the Earth, Open Spaces Society, and the South Downs National Park Authority. The council will also have ignored a petition that has garnered more than 7,000 signatures at this point in time.

What makes the collapse in the council’s reputation even worse is its continual reliance upon a torrent of misleading claims in the media, its obsession with secrecy in the sale process, its refusal to consult the public properly on his sale proposals, and its creation of a veritable universe of ‘alternative facts’ that disguise the very damaging impacts the sale of the downland will have for the future of a much-loved landscape that is as fragile as it is rare, that needs very careful, steady management over the long-term, that should never be sacrificed for short-term financial gain at the expense of the huge social capital and natural capital gains that have accrued over the last few decades through the council’s own pro-active management strategy for the landscape.

What has amazed me, though, throughout this Keep Our Downs Public campaign, has been the heroic actions of so many people from Eastbourne, and from across the many communities of the South Downs, in standing up for the defence of our Downs, our heritage, our bond with a very special landscape which gives us so much in so many ways. All their actions matter, and have helped to make the campaign gain so much momentum. The love of nature, of our South Downs, and of the democratic ideals behind the public ownership and protection of them, will endure and flourish, whether or not the land is sold. The South Downs is too iconic and special a landscape to ever be left entirely at the mercy of a mercantile class grown fabulously rich through the inequalities generated by a rampant globalisation and financialisation of the world economy. As in 1926, the people who love this landscape and have a deep emotional bond with it, will ultimately win in the long run, even if they lose a few tactical battles, because they have won the argument and based their case on the evidence. Some things are simply too sacred to sell. Eastbourne Borough Council used to believe that. It could still believe that if it chose to. We who love the South Downs demand it makes that choice.

Footnote: If you are an Eastbourne resident, you can lobby your local councillors about the sell-off by using this template letter, which you can adapt, and which will automatically be sent by email to the relevant councillors in your electoral ward.

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