Letter from an Eastbourne resident about the downland sell-off

welcomedowns-board
During the course of the Keep Our Downs Public campaign to stop Eastbourne Borough Council going ahead with its plan to sell off 75% (about 3,000 acres) of the Eastbourne Downland Estate, countless letters have been written by Eastbourne residents to Eastbourne Borough Council and its individual councillors, urging the council to halt the sell-off. It’s impossible for us to show them all, of course, but we thought the letter here is particularly good as it covers a lot of powerful points in a concise way, and shows up the inadequacy of the council’s Eastbourne Review poll on the sell-off. We are grateful to Ting Plaskett for giving us permission to reproduce the letter here:

Dear Councillor Tutt

 

The Spring 2017 Eastbourne Review which was delivered on Friday 17 February took me totally aback: the most hideous photo I have ever seen of the South Downs on the front cover; four pages of biased and incomplete information; the request for residents’ opinion which was actually a spurious tick box exercise designed to elicit the response the council wants; the 3 March deadline allowing two weeks for consideration of a far-reaching and irreversible course of action which until then many residents had been unaware of (and which is actually still the case, as not everyone has received the review).

 

This is not transparent, impartial governance but part of an apparent attempt to mislead and manipulate residents. I attended the meeting you hosted in the Town Hall on 22 November, when you assured everyone that concerns and queries would be noted and answers subsequently provided. I then emailed you and the three Old Town Councillors on 5 December, to which Councillor Dow replied the same day, and to which I replied on 12 December (resent 19 December). I then began a second round on 31 January, which resulted in a short exchange with Councillor Ungar. Overall, the various replies failed to answer my specific queries but instead raised new ones, some of which are repeated below alongside further specific points prompted by the Eastbourne Review.

 

Downland Working Farms versus Open Downland. This distinction is a red herring: the very nature of downland is essentially down to sheep grazing. Furthermore, the land was bought as a single entity, as stated in the Welcome to Eastbourne Downland board (photo attached) at the start of the South Downs Way: “The Eastbourne Downland is at the easternmost end of the South Downs and consists of open access downland and tenant farmland. The Eastbourne Corporation purchased the downland in the 1920s to safeguard this special area from possible development.”

 

1,000 acres versus 3,000 acres. It is totally misleading to quote the first figure but not the second, especially when there is no mention of the 4.000 acre total either.

 

Plan of working farm land proposed for sale. This clearly illustrates the extent of the land for sale and should have been included in the review. Many people do not have any/easy access to the council’s website.

 

In perpetuity versus not in perpetuity. Why does the Eastbourne Downland Management Plan 2012-2017 refer to the exchange between Mr Abady and Mr Knight if the land was not bought in perpetuity? The ‘explanation’ in the review is so convoluted that I got lost half way through.

 

Restrictive covenants: If the land returns to the Gilbert and Chatsworth Estates, most if not all the restrictive covenants will become obsolete. Either the council has received very poor legal advice or it wilfully set out to mislead us on this key aspect right from the beginning.

 

New covenants in the event of selling on the open market. Any properly significant and effective restrictions would reduce the sale price, so I would consider their introduction highly unlikely.

 

Disposing of a capital assest with low income yield. Why would any buyer(s) consider paying £15-30 million with the prospect of a similarly low return? At the very least, they are more likely to convert from grazing to intensive arable, or to a vineyard, or to some other higher yielding monoculture. And at worst, we are facing housing development (as happened on Pococks Field, owned by the Chatsworth Estate).

 

Planning Controls by South Downs National Park Authority. As evidenced by changes to land use in other national parks, these are not as robust as is commonly believed – especially once appeals are launched and the Secretary of State becomes involved. Public ownership is a valuable layer of protection which we must not lose.

 

Environmental Impact Assessment. This should have been undertaken in 2015, before the council reached its decision. Residents should have been able to consider the results, along with all other elements, before having to give their opinion.

 

Protecting frontline services. You did not mention this at any point during the meeting on 22 November, nor did Councillor Dow in his email of 5 December: “£1million pounds will be put back into the public bridle ways and public buildings such as Beachy Head; the remaining balance will support improvements throughout Eastbourne which Eastbourne residents and of course tourists will all benefit from.”

 

Eastbourne as a tourist destination. Visitors come for many different reasons: yes, for the town centre, for the seaside, for the tennis, but also for access to beautiful countryside. Eastbourne’s location at the eastern end of the South Downs National Park and South Downs Way is a significant pull factor for walkers, cyclists and anyone who relishes a combination of coastal and downland scenery and wildlife. Have you ever sat atop a westbound No 12 bus and heard visitors exclaiming in wonder when they reach the brow of East Dean Road?

 

Secrecy versus transparency. The council made the initial decision in October 2015, but it was only in November 2016 that the barest details started filtering out into the public realm – and it has been a relentless struggle to get a fuller picture.

 

Full details on the Council’s website since before Christmas. And more than a year after the decision, so rather late in the day. As I mentioned when I emailed on 5 December, the only document I had been able to find was the Eastbourne Downland Management Plan 2012-2017.

 

We want your opinion. Really? By asking me to tick a box? I agonised long and hard about whether to return the form, but not doing so would have implied lack of interest. Then I considered adding a third ‘abstain’ box, but concluded that would probably just be ignored. So, with a heavy heart, I ticked Option 2 – not because service cuts are ’the preferred way forward’ but because selling the farms is even less so. All in all, the council’s actions over the past few months have been breathtakingly disingenuous and I am left feeling completely let down, disappointed, sad – and newly cynical about local democracy and politics.

 

I shudder to think ahead to 2027, 2037, and beyond. I can imagine houses along the A259 all the way to East Dean. I can imagine walking through housing estates along Long Down and Eldon Bottom. Putting our priceless downland heritage at such risk is just too awful to contemplate. We all have a massive responsibility to preserve it for future generations. We must Keep Our Downland Public.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Ting Plaskett

Old Town Resident

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