Myth versus reality in Eastbourne’s downland sell-off

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This post is a detailed refutation by the Keep Our Downs Public campaign of the misleading information published by Eastbourne Borough Council in the latest edition of its Eastbourne Review in defence of its case for selling the downland farms which have been in the hands of Eastbourne since 1929.

Keep Our Downs Public Group:  Myth Versus Reality

Council’s Eastbourne Review: response to the accusations and myth-information

Two weeks ago Eastbourne Borough Council (the Council) published its Spring 2017 Eastbourne Review ‘Downland special’.

The headings here are as published in the Eastbourne Review, page 10.

Far from offering a balanced and comprehensive account appropriate to a public consultation, this was entirely the Council’s viewpoint, without ANY involvement from Keep Our Downs Public Group (KODP) or indeed any independent experts such as from CPRE, Ramblers Association, South Downs Society, Sussex Wildlife Trust and others.

The information provided leads readers to the council’s desired outcome, and omits basic, critically relevant factual information such as, for example, a map of the large area up for sale. It has rightly been described as a ‘council-owned propaganda freesheet.’ (Times 24 February 2017)

So what has been sent out, at the expense of the Council tax payers of Eastbourne, is a totally biased account that can only be called propaganda.

As well as key omitted Downland Facts, within the review there are Council Myths.  The council, is peddling “myths” purported to have been spread by those opposing the sell-off.   This document focuses on these myths and offers our responses to these accusations.

 

  1. The Council is selling off the public Open Downland

KODP has NOT stated that the Council was selling off the open space downland, but has tried to inform people of the fact that the council is proposing to sell off the four downland farms, which comprise three quarters of the downland which the council currently owns (around 3,000 of 4,000 acres!).  

This has been to counter the Council’s attempted smokescreen and misinformation that the downland is not for sale – it’s all downland, from the chalk cliffs, across the Beachy Head open space, the pastures and arable land and wooded fringes, to the open space of Butts Brow to the north.

 

  1. The Council has no right to sell this land as it was gifted to the people of Eastbourne in perpetuity

KODP has never said the Council did not have a legal right to sell the land.  

It has highlighted the spirit of the Act and the will of Parliament, to put this land into public ownership to protect it and provide public benefit – a position to counter an immoral council decision to dispose of this gift.  

KODP believes the Council has a strong moral responsibility to the residents of Eastbourne and the nation, to keep this land in public ownership.  The money to buy the downland was provided by the public.

There are today at Beachy Head metal plaques which state that the downland was to be held by the public ‘in perpetuity’ This means forever, not less than 100 years!

 

  1. The Council can only use the sale funds once – when it’s gone, it’s gone forever

The Council says it can sell off the downland and buy other higher yielding capital assets.  

It chooses not to repeat the earlier explanation, after being confronted by local residents when the council’s secret sale proposal leaked out, that it “needs” to sell the downland to refurbish the commercial leisure facility of Devonshire Park.  

This is the example as Oscar Wilde put it, of the man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.  What price the diverse wildlife and rich cultural heritage, what price the clean unpolluted water that we in Eastbourne enjoy?  To swap the Downs, a national iconic landscape for what – a block of flats that gives a higher annual return?  The Council seems to have forgotten its role in the community, to represent its people and provide public services, which includes our accessible and beautiful downland.

Joni Mitchell had a famous song about this:

“Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”.

 

  1. Once it’s sold, private owners will be able to exploit and develop the land

Development can take the form of intensifying or change of land use as well as physical development such as buildings.

In the Review the Council says that the “farms are extensively protected by restrictive covenants.”  The Council’s lack of transparency has been exposed as it refuses to disclose even one of these despite being asked under the Freedom of Information Act.

Cllr Tutt claimed there were 140 pages of covenants that provide very strong protection of the downland.  When pressed about this he has since admitted that in fact the 140 pages related to a legal review of the covenants by lawyers, that the Council had commissioned (at some cost to the public purse).  

The Council now admits that these covenants provide very little protection at all.

Cllr Tutt misrepresented the position to the public.  He has since said that he did not fully understand the position as he is not a lawyer!

This highlights a very real concern in the council and begs the question of how much of what else he says is also inaccurate.  What does he really understand about finance or wildlife protection or the real value of the Downs, for example?

 

  1. If whoever buys the land then sells it on, the covenants will not apply to subsequent buyers

KODP has never said that covenants would not apply to subsequent owners.

Restrictive covenants do run with the land and can bind subsequent owners.  However, because the farms were compulsorily purchased from the Gilbert and Chatsworth Estates in 1929, they first have to be offered back to them under ‘preemption’ rights.  If this happens they have to be transferred back ‘without restriction’, which means that all the restrictive covenants would be wiped clean.

More importantly, the existing covenants are not enforceable by the council but by the estates from whom they compulsorily purchased.  

Furthermore, the Covenants do very little if anything to protect the downland from development.

 

  1. Sale of the land to private owners will put our wildlife and habitat at risk

The simple truth – IT WILL BE A MAJOR THREAT TO OUR DOWNS.  This is the view of the wildlife experts including Dr Tony Whitbread, Director of the Sussex Wildlife Trust and Chairman of the South Downs Network, which includes around 40 environmental organisations.  

We have not come across one single environment wildlife expert who agrees with the Council that wildlife and other invaluable features will not suffer if the downland is sold.

Chris Packham and Nigel Symington  (Chair Butterfly Conservation) are just two wildlife experts who are very concerned by the council’s plans.

The council says that it will undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).  But This clearly shows that it doesn’t know what it’s talking about, because you carry out an EIA once you know what the project is that is going to be carried out and how it will impact the environment (eg EIA for a wind farm that a developer wants to build).

The council wrongly believes that there will be no change,  and so how can it carry out a meaningful EIA and why would it if Cllr Tutt is “guaranteeing” no change in our downland if it is sold on the open market to whoever!

What it should have done, before even thinking about selling the downland, was to do a natural capital assessment looking at the true value of the downland, for example the town’s water supply and the downland’s rich biodiversity.  That would have shown the true value, far in excess of any one-off cash sale obtained from selling the downland farms.

 

  1. Sale of this land will jeopardise our town’s water supply

THIS IS NO MYTH – it will.  Though there is some legal protection in place, this does not stop water pollution from happening.  

One of the reasons for public acquisition was to control the management of the land, to protect our drinking water; indeed, in the 1980s, the Council implemented a number of measures on our farms to reduce the chemical inputs and address the increasing levels of nitrate pollution in the aquifer – it can’t do this if the downland is sold off.

The Environment Agency can sometimes take action, but often by then the damage has been done and the water resources are polluted and it is VERY expensive to remediate.

The Eastbourne downland is of particular concern as the water in the chalk aquifers is highly vulnerable and it is where we get 90% of our drinking water.  If this is polluted we will have a very major problem – there is no magic extra clean water supply to be tapped – once polluted you have no drinking water!

The major threat is diffuse pollution (such as from pesticides).  If the farms are sold then to increase profitability it is very likely that the agriculture will be intensified.

The fields, currently under environmental management with much down to sheep-grazed grassland, will be ploughed up.  The farmers are likely to use nitrates and pesticides such as metaldehyde to get higher crop yields from the land.  These will filter into the groundwater resulting in our water being contaminated.  These contaminates are also carcinogenic.

There are drinking water standards, but over time the nitrate concentrations in our drinking water will be building up.

We rely on the Downs to filter our water to provide a healthy source; we must now seriously contemplate our council selling off our water supply, to the mercy of private purchasers that will not have our health as their concern.

 

  1. This proposal will result in the loss of a valuable amenity to the general public

Only the rights of way across the downland farms will remain, not the informal paths and open access we enjoy on this public land.  

When we go out now we are walking with beautiful views of open downland with grazing sheep and we hear the skylarks in the air.  What will we see in 10 years’ time if the downland farms are sold?

The council myth is that nothing will change, a statement it cannot honour if it sells our land and loses all control.  Whilst the land remains in public ownership, we are the custodians, and the council is accountable to us for how it is managed.  Once it is sold, we have lost that control, and our invaluable asset would be changed forever.

 

  1. The Council has made the decision in secret and not consulted with its people

This is sadly correct.  The Council’s Cabinet decided in secret to sell the downland farms back in October 2015 and it was not until November 2016, over a year later, that the public became fully aware.  

Only then did the Council very belatedly and begrudgingly confront its people, to come clean on what it had been plotting.

When the matter was put to the Full Council in Nov 2015, the councillors were not even allowed to vote on it.  When Cllr Barry Taylor (Conservative) raised an objection, people were cleared from the public gallery before the discussion could proceed.  The matter only came to light when it was leaked to the press.

On such an important issue the Council should be accountable to us, the people, open and transparent; instead they chose to conduct their plans in secrecy.

 

  1. The Council refuses to consult with the general public on this matter

The Council wanted this matter to go through quietly without the public knowing.  But once the public became aware and showed its grave concern, the Council realised it had to do something.

As more and more people voiced their concerns and protested, the Council has had to do more but unfortunately they were more interested in form than substance by pretending to hold a consultation but instead holding a sham poll.  This has been severely criticised by Caroline Ansell MP (25 February) as something which is ‘not credible or legitimate.’

The Aarhus Convention, Article 7 relates to ‘Public Participation Concerning Plans, Programmes and Policies Relating to the Environment’, which states: that the public must participate ‘within a transparent and fair framework’.

The Council has failed to do this as it did not involve the KODP campaigners or anyone else at all in the Eastbourne Review.  It is also not an open, objective poll.  Therefore, the ‘consultation’ that the Council purports to provide has no legitimacy.

 

  1. The Council has already made its decision

It is obvious that the Cabinet, which is the Council’s small decision-making group, comprising only six members, all Lib Dem, is determined to go ahead with the sale due to the need to fund ambitious plans that rely on funds from these sales.  

The sale of the downland farms would help pay for the £44 million facelift for the Devonshire Park complex.

It did not ask the public which they would prefer, the open downland with its unique wildlife, rich cultural heritage and a safe drinking water supply or £ millions spent on a commercial tennis complex.

The only thing that will stop the sale from going ahead is if the councillors concerned recognise the will of the people, realise that the public are not to be duped and that they are very unlikely to get re-elected if the downland sale goes ahead.

The Council has shown a gross disregard to its people, by being secretive, handing out misinformation and myth. The public have recognised the ‘consultation document ‘ for what it is, propaganda which lacks all legitimacy.  What is at stake is the future of one of the most beautiful and special landscapes of the British Isles and we must show the Council that we the people will fight to protect it.
25.02. 2017

KODP Authors:

Phil Belden CEnv, MCIEEM, BA (Hons)

(Environment & Landscape Professional, ex-Director of Operations, South Downs National Park Authority)

Simon Boyle  LLB , MA (Environmental Lawyer)

Sally Boys

Caroline Tradewell

Derek Read BA(Hons), BPhil, MRTPI (Rtd)  (Town Planner)

Catherine Tonge

 

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