Thursday, 10 November 2016

Protest against downland sell-off!

Eastbourne Town Hall

A protest is being held in Sussex against the sell-off of public land in the South Downs National Park.

Downs lovers are urged to gather outside Eastbourne Town Hall in Grove Road, BN21 4UG, on Wednesday November 16 2016, from 5pm.

The threat to Eastbourne's countryside comes at the same time as Brighton Council's underhand privatisation of its downland and outrage at this betrayal of our natural heritage is rapidly spreading across Sussex.

Protest organisers Eastbourne and district Friends of the Earth warn: "Eastbourne Borough Council intends to sell off most of the Eastbourne Downland Estate, putting at grave risk the rich nature and wildlife heritage of downland that was originally purchased by the council on behalf of Eastbourne residents for them to enjoy 'in perpetuity'.

"Please join us outside Eastbourne Town Hall, just before a full council meeting of Eastbourne Borough Council, to protest against this flogging off of a precious community asset. Once it's sold, it's gone for ever!

"Bring a placard or banner, if you can, and/or something that reminds people of how precious our Eastbourne downland is. Also, please contact your local councillor and MP too, to let them know how you feel about losing part of what makes Eastbourne great!"

Facebook users can find out more info here. Meanwhile, below, Keep Our Downs Public set out the history and possible future of Eastbourne's downland.

Since when have we owned  the Eastbourne Downland Estate?  
The estate was bought by the borough in 1929, after an enabling Act of Parliament was passed in 1926. All the Downland within the Eastbourne Council’s political boundary is within the estate ... the entire coastal strip, from Holywell and Beachy Head to Belle Tout near Birling Gap, north by the edge of East Dean and on up to Bourne Hill and Butt’s Brow above Willingdon, and the entire western edge of the town.  

Why was it bought?

It was acquired to “secure the free and open use of the Downs in perpetuity”. This public ownership thus saved the Eastbourne downland from building development, restrictive fencing and ploughing up. It also protected the drinking water supply and the ancient, unfenced sheep walks of flower-rich ancient pastures, with gorse and thorn brakes and areas of rare ‘chalk heath’, where heathers mingled with chalk-loving flowers.

The early days continued the traditional farming, provision and management of public access, including a ranger on horseback to patrol the area, advise the public and work with the tenant farmers. [See these Pathé News videos from 1949 and 1957.]
However, post-war agricultural intensification damaged and destroyed much of those open and free pastures, and some of the memory of them faded. 

In the 1980s, rising pollution levels in the aquifer and shrinking internationally rare chalk grassland, due to ploughing and cliff erosion, led to a programme of landscape restoration. This resulted in the reversion of significant areas of arable to permanent grass, reduced nitrate levels in the water supply, extended and joined-up chalk grassland habitat, with increased open access and rich archaeological sites preserved under grass. This had strong political support from the town’s councillors (championed by leader Maurice Skilton), was carried through by willing officers (led by finance and downland chief, David Hazelden) and had full support from partners.

The new strategy for the estate revived the original principle of the 1920s acquisition and began to address the financial problems and marginalisation. The main thrust of the initiative was to take direct control of part of Bullock Down Farm and Cornish Farm, re-seed the arable with downland wildflowers, take down fences and link up areas of grassland for landscape gain and effective grazing management, open the coastal areas to public access, and employ a ranger and two shepherds to manage two municipal flocks of sheep. The estate was newly signed to proclaim the new resources we could enjoy.


What are its measurements?

The public estate is 4,200 acres. It is 4.7 miles from south to north, and 2.5 miles in width at its widest point. There are four working farms: Chalk Farm, Willingdon, 591 acres; Black Robin Farm, 1,012.5 acres, south of the A259 road; Bullock Down Farm, 495 acres, behind Beachy Head; and Cornish Farm, 1,085 acres, NE of Birling Gap. They total 3183 acres...and this is what is for sale – 75.8% of the estate.

The whole of the 4.5 mile wooded and grassy scarp slope from Combe Hill, south to Beachy Head is in the estate, as are all the cliffs and their hinterland from Holywell, Eastbourne to beyond Belle Tout Lighthouse. 

What treasures does it protect?

The following designations are NATIONAL and STATUTORY. However, designated sites are NOT adequately protected by such designations and do not necessarily mean positive management results, many are in poor condition, but recoverable in public hands, but far greater risk in unaccountable private hands.

The coast is part of the iconic nationally defined Sussex Heritage Coast, which recognises the undeveloped coastline, very rare in the built-up south-east of England.

The estate contains 32 separately designated Scheduled Ancient Monuments (SAMs). The four farms contain a large proportion of those SAMs including the most important of all: the Combe Hill Neolithic Causewayed Camp, as well as the much-researched Bullock Down prehistoric field system, the Eastdean Down field system, and many prehistoric burial barrows.

The estate contains all the eastern part of the Seaford Head to Beachy Head Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), including seashore, cliffs, and cliff-top archaic chalk grassland and scrub, and eastern scarp chalk grassland scrub and woodland.

Two separate parts of that SSSI, Bulling Dean and Kiln Combe are within the for-sale Bullock Down Farm. They are the southern stronghold for the nationally rare Moon Carrot, Seseli libanotis.

The estate also contains the for-sale Willingdon Downs SSSI, a large and substantial area of internationally rare archaic chalk grassland.

What are the threats?

These threats are LEGION and cannot all be anticipated because new ones come in all the time: loss of the farms to well-off life-style owners by conversion and new building or inappropriate livery grazing – all potentially threatening the landscape and open public access with a proliferation of fencing, sheds and other buildings, jumps and clutter, lights, security cameras, new tracks; intensive viticulture, with its high fences and chemical pollution risks to the ground-water and spray residues; extended game bird management, with exclusions, rearing pens, alien plantings etc; abandonment of farming and conservation management, threatening species-rich chalk grassland; large industrialised energy schemes such as solar arrays & wind turbines...

New private owners will be far more interested in either excluding the public or making us pay for their visitor attractions. The story of the privatisation of Mary Farm on the Brighton Downland, or the fate of all the sold-off Forestry Commission woods is ample evidence of that.


The Eastbourne estate is a major public asset for its people, with annual income, a guaranteed revenue stream, forever. You can only sell your crown jewels once, what happens in 10 or 20 years’ time when the council is looking for more money?

The original aims of the estate in the 1920s, those same aims revived by Eastbourne Council in 1980s and by the new South Downs National Park will be lost forever if sold.

Let's switch this around, save these Downs “in perpetuity” ... a free, public, open, wildlife-rich, pastoral landscape, emblematic of the freedom and oneness with nature which we all seek. People of Eastbourne and surrounding area treasure their precious downland, elected councillors need to respect this and take action, to stop the sale and instruct officers to continue the positive programme of continued landscape restoration and enhanced public access, bringing redundant buildings into appropriate uses (education, visitor facilities etc) and benign farm diversification, linking the tenant farmers who are managing this public estate on behalf of the residents, the people who are the local consumers of the food, water and other benefits the land provides.

Funding / finance

The stark choice is: one-off capital receipt now, once sold income lost forever; or, an imaginative plan to maintain and enhance the annual revenue accruing from the downland. 

The scope is huge, from the million or more people who visit Beachy Head each year to helping improve the offer the farms can make and a firm working relationship with partners such as the National Park Authority, National Trust and others.

There are attractive grant opportunities: lottery (Brighton & Hove has a £5m project bid in for part of its Downs), Local Enterprise Partnership (Hampshire County Council has a bid in to re-vamp some of its downland visitor assets).

1 comment:

  1. This is a total disgrace. The worthy people of Eastbourne bought the land so that other generations could use and enjoy in the future. This council are guardians of the land and should recognise the fact. The money made from the sell out will only be wasted/