Video and article - Hundreds protest South Downs sell-off

Mark Brown mark at
Tue Nov 17 22:26:09 GMT 2009

ARTICLE 'The new South Downs National Park: a class act'
by DAVE BANGS - see below

VIDEO: Hundreds protest to stop Cissbury Ring land sale
Dave Bangs - local downlands campaigner & Kate Ashbrook from the Open Spaces Society speak on the day of the rally about why so many people (400) turned out braving blustery conditions in campaigning against the proposed sell-off of downland near Worthing by the local council:
 [Published Date:  14 November 2009]

A PROTEST rally was staged today (Saturday, November 14) by the Stop Cissbury Sell off group.

Despite Worthing Council's decision to review whether 200 acres of its agricultural land near Cissbury Ring should be sold, the protest went ahead at 11am.

During the protest which was attended by about 400 people, the group held a short meeting before walking across Mount Carvey, Cissbury Ring and back down Tenants Hill to view the for-sale land.

The group discussed how they wish to see it improved under Worthing's ownership.

Open Spaces Society general secretary Kate Ashbrook spoke during the rally.

She said: "The Open Spaces Society has campaigned to save our open spaces for more than 140 years and is pleased to add its weight to this crucial campaign for the Cissbury downland.

"This is of exceptional value for its landscape, chalkland habitat and public enjoyment. It forms a vital part of the setting of the celebrated Cissbury Ring, and is within the new South Downs National Park.

"We are delighted that the leader of Worthing Council, Paul Yallop, has agreed to review the sale of its downland around Cissbury Ring.

"But we fear that this may merely be a stay of execution. We want the council to revoke that decision and to resolve not only to retain the downland, but to restore it to its former wildlife- and wildflower-rich landscape."

Cabinet member Steve Waight said: "Because the decision was made a year ago and because of public concern, we feel it right to review the decision in order to make sure we take everything into account before a final decision."


South Downs National Park: a class act, by Dave Bangs

Republished with kind permission from ECOS (originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of ECOS):

'The new South Downs National Park: a class act'

The designation of this latest National Park is an historic victory. It is shaped, however, in its boundaries and governance by the influence of class.

This article is a kind of footnote to the story of the South Downs
National Park. Sometimes, though, footnotes tell their own important tale. 

I should have felt wonderful when the new Park was finally proclaimed in March 2009. Instead, I felt like a wet blanket. My mood was down to this: whilst the new National Park had finally been achieved, based on new geographic boundaries more generous than we had dared to hope, there were a number of howling omissions. The Park boundaries, particularly around the Brighton conurbation, are pock-marked by irrational exclusions of Down and chalk cliff.

The pattern of these inclusions and exclusions raises much bigger issues about how and for whom these designated landscapes are made - issues which extend also to the matter of governance for National Parks.

An 80 year saga

The long story of the fight for the South Downs National Park has elements of heroic endurance. The South Downs were first suggested for National Park status around 80 years ago. They were, again, on the Hobhouse Report's list of 1947 from which all National Parks have been drawn since the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act was passed in 1949.

They were, however, dropped as a candidate in 1956, after the National
Parks Commission of the time judged that the destruction of their
aboriginal Down pastures in the great post-World War plough-ups had
proceeded too far for designation to be meaningful. That did not stop the small band of campaigners for Park status, and their efforts were revived in the last two decades and placed on a vigorous footing by the new South Downs Campaign.

It achieved its first great victory when Michael Meacher, New Labour's
first Environment Minister, announced at the 1999 Labour Party Conference a project to designate two new National Parks: the New Forest and the South Downs. Meacher's speech made clear that the South Downs Park was to be based on a project of landscape restoration. It was to revive a badly battered nationally-loved landscape and bring it back to health.

A two-tone picture

The Park project faced a two-tone local political picture. Amongst
ordinary residents, the Park was consistently popular, with opinion poll support rates around 90%. This support reflected a hegemonic local view that the Downs were special and deserved protection. Most local authorities and most business leaders, however, opposed, or only guardedly endorsed the National Park project. Their leaders judged that the Park's tighter planning regime would damage business's exploitative opportunities, and that the transfer of planning from the area's local councils to a new National Park Authority would reduce those councils' corporate powers.

This contradictory picture of broad popular support for the Park and elite opposition to it was largely a matter of class. But the issue of class cannot be boiled down to some simple opposition between farmers and business folk who see the countryside as a source of profit only, and the rest of us who suffer from their greed. As elsewhere in England the designated countryside of Sussex and Hampshire is dominated by middle and owning-class folk who have created a huge leisure landscape, by the taking over of farmland and all manner of rural housing. Many of the activists from this constituency joined with the South Downs Campaign. Working people who have been able to survive in the countryside have lost even that weak political voice which they erstwhile had.

The conflict in the countryside between landscape exploitation and
landscape conservation is largely a conflict between two better-off social strata: those who wish to use the countryside as a source of profit, and those who wish to use it as a privileged source of pleasure. Whilst the preservationist wing of these social layers dominates in the Downland and West Wealden countryside, it is the developmentalists who have just had the edge in recent times in the Brighton conurbation, pushing through the new Brighton and Hove Albion stadium, and a wave of prestige tall tower developments proposed since 2000 (temporarily stymied by the recession).

The lovely urban fringe

Yet, paradoxically, on the urban edge of the Brighton Downs a series of the best remnants of the old landscape survive. A peculiar mixture of physiography, historical land use, past municipal initiative, and the retreat of farming, has meant that the Brighton urban fringe retains a necklace of high quality sites often superior to those that survive on the more remote Downland plateau beyond. The famous Castle Hill National Nature Reserve - home to Wartbiters and Early Spider Orchids - is an urban fringe site, as is Newhaven Cliffs, with 'one of the two best beetle assemblages in Sussex'.  

Seven miles of gleaming white chalk cliffs march from east Brighton to Newhaven, all designated as a geological SSSI for the unparalleled view they give of millions of years of development of the chalk outcrop. Whitehawk Hill boasts one of the 10 best preserved upstanding Neolithic causewayed camps in Britain.

Elastic boundaries

When the National Park announcement was made, 5 miles of that SSSI
cliffscape had been excluded, including 2.5 miles in pristine form without any coastal engineering, along with Whitehawk's Hill, parts of Newhaven's heathy Downland, and a big urban fringe valley - Toad's Hole, inter-visible with large adjacent areas of the wider Downs.
By contrast, Winchester's water meadows right down almost to the heart of the City, the old Royal Forests of Alice Holt and Woolmer  and Jane
Austen's landscape of Chawton, are all included. Not only the high relief land of the Western Weald, with its sandstone scarps and abundant commons, but large areas of the Low Weald north of the chalk scarp of the eastern Downs are included. Places like Ditchling that are visually connected to the Downs only by their southerly views to the chalk scarp are included, and the National Park border laps right up to the urban edge of the Mid Sussex commuter town of Burgess Hill.
The Downland county town of Lewes, with its castle and historic streets, is included, with the towns of Midhurst, Petworth, Liss, and Petersfield, whilst the Downland town of Arundel is excluded, apart from its castle, together with that other Saxon baronial capital of Bramber, with neighbouring Beeding and Steyning.

What can we make of such an inconsistent boundary pattern? It is a plain reflection of the inconsistent pattern of campaigning pressure, which was, in turn, most obviously a reflection of class.

Statistics of poverty

Before the Public Inquiry on the National Park I did a comparative study of a quarter of the responses made in the Countryside Agency's public consultation on the Park, with reference to four sub-landscapes on the Brighton Downs. I chose four areas in the Countryside Agency's Area of Search, two adjacent to communities with high levels of social
deprivation, and two adjacent to areas of social privilege. One of the two socially deprived areas was next to the east Brighton racecourse
landscape, with its LNR, SNCIs and Neolithic causewayed camp (a SAM -
Scheduled Ancient Monument), and one was next to Newhaven's LNR and SNCI, SAM, SSSI & RIGS cliffs and Downland. The two areas of privilege were Rottingdean (where Rudyard Kipling and the Pre-Raphaelite artist
Burne-Jones once lived) and its adjacent suburbs, and Low Wealden
Ditchling parish with three adjacent villages.

The difference in the levels of response to the National Park consultation was sharp. Only eight people from the poor wards adjacent to the East Brighton Downland made representations in the sample quarter of the responses that I looked at. The even-poorer wards adjacent to Newhaven's Downland had only one representation made to the CA consultation - and that was from a field studies teacher far away in Surrey! By contrast, well-off Rottingdean and the prosperous Ditchling area together made 274 representations in my sample.

Overall, then, the ratio of responses to the CA consultation made in my samples was 1:30 between the poorer and richer areas. This painful
difference was exaggerated by the Countryside Agency's own discriminatory behaviour. It held at least one meeting in rich Rottingdean, but no such event in the poor areas adjacent to the east Brighton Downland.

Fish and chip Downland OUT: Cream tea Downland IN

This differential responsiveness of consultees has absolutely nothing to do with the relative intrinsic qualities of Downscapes adjacent to poorer areas versus those adjacent to richer areas. To the contrary, for the landscape around better-off Rottingdean embraces a subtopian sprawl of low-density housing, as well as large areas of Downland stripped almost entirely of their aboriginal Down pastures. There is no evidence, either, that working class users of their neighbouring Downland love their bits of nature any less than more prosperous users cherish their bits, and both the East Brighton Downs and the Newhaven Downs and seashore are crowded with users on sunny days. Black pentecostalists motor down from London to hold church services on the beach, and teenagers canoodle amongst the undercliff boulders. Generations of kids have slid down Whitehawk Hill's steepness on bits of cardboard in snow and sun.

The final boundaries of the Park reflect the disparities between those
levels of engagement with the consultation process. Rich Rottingdean sees the inclusion of all its Downland and half of its cliffland within the National Park, and the whole of Ditchling and its surrounds is included.

The richer communities see their areas to be included within the new Park expanded far beyond the old Sussex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty boundaries to include previously undesignated Downland, areas of the Low Weald, and cliffscape.

By contrast, the poorer areas see only small gains or, indeed, roll-back of the boundaries they had enjoyed under the old AONB. Elsewhere the picture is the same. How better can we account for the exclusion at all stages of the consultation of the attractive village of Beeding and its wide brooklands than by looking at its class structure? It is a village with much social and ex-social housing. A BNP candidate fared very well in a recent election, reflecting a deep alienation from the main bourgeois parties. The exclusion of Steyning and Bramber and its Norman castle is more difficult to explain, for they have acted as gateway settlements to the Downs for over a thousand years. For a while they were proposed for inclusion. How, though, could their activists match the fire power of the town of Lewes, packed with University, County Hall, and London professionals determined to preserve their 'positional goods'. All of that
town and surrounds is to be included.

Gilbert White of Selborne

This picture of the clout of the middle class activists being used to
include their favoured bits of landscape irrespective of their
relationship to any unitary landscape type or to the recreational needs of the working class is reinforced at the far outposts beyond what was ever traditionally defined as the South Downs. How can we do else but whole-heartedly welcome the inclusion of the wonderful Forests of Woolmer and Alice Holt in the National Park, despite knowing that Gilbert White of Selborne would have gasped at the idea that they had any relationship with the South Downs beyond that of close proximity and contrast with them ?

Of course our activists welcome their inclusion, but I would do so more whole-heartedly if I did not have to deal with the painful memory of the SDC's relative indifference to our struggle. They mostly left us to fight on our own. For the broader social inequalities in the environs of the new Park were always reflected within the South Downs Campaign. 

It will not sit well with any story of a united peoples' campaign for the new Park to remember that at one stage the coalition of local Brighton wildlife groups had to picket the annual meeting of the South Downs Campaign with banners and leaflets to assert the case for the inclusion of the important Brighton urban fringe sites. We shouldn't have bothered, for the little note that was taken of our case.

Let's say it plainly. What made the Inspector, the Countryside Agency, the DEFRA officials, and many South Downs Campaign activists, reject those excluded areas was the ugliness of poverty, not any ugliness of landscape.

Tweedledum and Tweedledee

Let us compare two landscapes in Lewes District Council's area. The
District had two main Downland towns in contention: Lewes and Newhaven-Peacehaven. Both are gateways to the National Park landscape.

Newhaven has cliffs and the sea, brooklands and heathy Down. It also has a rundown port, struggling industrial estates, and semi-derelict old plotland dwellings. Lewes has cliffs (quarries, actually), brooklands and Downs. It also has a large historic core, and a castle, as well as industrial estates, the County Hall tower block, prison, and noisy A27 bypass.

Masses of campaigning activity went into the inclusion of Lewes town,
using large posters and bill boards like an old fashioned election
campaign. By contrast, no District-level activity went into the inclusion of Newhaven's cliffs and Down. Its largely working class communities found scarce any District advocates, with one notable exception - the redoubtable Downland campaigner Paul Millmore - who were prepared to argue for the inclusion of this wonderful cliffscape, with its Kittiwakes, Fulmars and Peregrines, its Oil Beetles, Bombardier Beetles, Sea Clover, Fenugreek and Eocene sharks' teeth.

Our own panel of witnesses did well. The SDC improved its position and
endorsed a weaker version of our proposed boundary. The Inspector conceded that the cliffs met the criteria. Those small gains were all lost in the end, though. They did not have the weight of advocacy they needed. The inclusion of Lewes town was a victory for its middle class
environmentalists. The exclusion of Newhaven's Downland was their

Business is business

Many business groups and landowners, as well as councils worked hard to oppose the Park, triggering the spending of huge sums of public money to argue before and during the Public Inquiry against its principle and proposed footprint. They succeeded in excluding aristocratic Arundel whose relationship to the wider Downs is identical to that of Lewes - set on a chalk hill overlooking a river which courses through a narrow gap in the Downs.

That lobby worked hard in Brighton, too, having many friends in key
council departments, though those officers did not have the public behind them. Even Steve Bassam, the then Labour Council leader, changed his mind and now supports the Park, as, indeed, did all the political parties with councillors, including the Brighton Tories.  Yet the Council's formal engagement with the Park was feeble and ambivalent, seeking to exclude key urban fringe areas - hills and valleys, allotments, parks and open spaces - from its boundaries so as to preserve future development opportunities.

Though activists constructed a coalition of the large Green and Tory
council groups, with two dissident Labourites, which won a vote for a
cling film City boundary for the Park, the new recommended boundary was later watered down in the Council's core Policy and Resources Committee.

When it came to representing the Council's new, improved position at the Public Inquiry the developmentalist chief officers simply didn't turn up to promote those bits that they disagreed with, rather than appear, as one of them said to me, to be contradicting their earlier policy!  By such undemocratic logic no civil servant would work for an incoming government's new policies if they contradicted the policies of the outgoing government!

Governance - Whose un-democracy do we support?

Ideas of democratic accountability with respect to the new Park were lost in a confused muddle of partial truths and distortions. Tory opponents of the Park (who dominated some rural District Councils and the County Councils) correctly argued that the forthcoming National Park Authority's wholly unelected governing body would be undemocratic, whilst choosing to ignore the fact that their vigorous opposition to such a plainly popular designation was itself undemocratic. Committed supporters of the Park fell into the trap of arguing that the appointed governing council will actually be democratic because its members are to be appointed by democratic councils or by a democratically elected Secretary of State.

I know of only one councillor, from the Green Party in Brighton, who
attempted to raise these wider issues of democracy in the debate on the Park. Since the enabling legislation means we will be saddled with a wholly appointed Park Authority we could at least have raised the issue of democracy in a propaganda fashion, and helped build a long-term argument for legal change, so that such local and sectoral state bodies should in future gain a chance of being elected.

This issue of democratic governance is a serious one. The process of
undermining local state democracy has taken place over more than a century - since universal suffrage was won. Within living memory Health Boards, Poor Law Guardians and School Boards were directly elected. Local councils, too, have been amalgamated, then amalgamated again, numbers of councillors reduced, stripped of tax raising and executive powers, replaced by 'Bonapartist' directly elected mayors, and had their committee systems abolished. It is not good to see liberal minded advocates of National Parks arguing that governance by appointees is the same as governance by elected representatives.

Many in the National Parks movement feel that the inclusion of parish
council nominees on Park Authority boards, under the provisions of the
1995 Environment Act, does something to rectify this democratic deficit.

Scarcely so. Different forms of democracy serve the interest of different social classes and sectors. The process of demographic change whereby the well-off have taken over so much more of our National Parks means that the provision for the enhanced direct representation of the parish council sector further disenfranchises those users at a distance from the Parks - say in Manchester or Sheffield, Brighton or Southampton, which include many poorer working people. It was, after all, in the interest of the populations of those large conurbations that the concept of National Parks was first promoted.

We must be apprehensive about the further regressive social effects that may result from such changes. National Park status for the South Downs, for example, will undoubtedly make it easier to enforce action against gypsies and other travellers, and we can be sure there will be an even steeper rise in property prices within the Park.

Reasons to be cheerful 

All those caveats about the structure and boundaries of the National Park must of course be put in the context of the many reasons to be cheerful about the outcome. For a while the whole Park project had clouded over badly. The tortuously slow process of consultation was halted in its tracks by the 'Meyrick Judgement', made as a result of a legal challenge to the proposed New Forest National Park boundaries by a neighbouring large estate. That judgement meant that the notion of what constituted appropriate landscape to include in a National Park was greatly narrowed, until new legislation was passed to clarify things. It was successfully argued by the Meyrick Estate that their ornamental planned park landscape was both too artificial and too private to qualify for inclusion in the National Park. Though this delay was frustrating, the resulting legal clarification represents a real advance on the rather misanthropic and unhistorical notions of natural beauty implicit in earlier National Park boundary making. Such notions always overvalued unpeopled, montane wildness at the expense of the softer, more 'domestic' lowlands.

We have another very large reason to be cheerful in the success of the
SDC's campaign for the inclusion of the Western Weald in the new Park.
Things there, too, looked very ominous after the first of the two Public Inquiries, when the Inquiry Inspector ruled that this landscape should be excluded. The SDC mustered its forces brilliantly and won that argument at the second Inquiry.

New onslaughts: new foundations

We must not celebrate too long. Appalling new threats loom over the
landscape of the whole of the Wealden basin of Sussex, Kent and Surrey. We need to mobilize against a housing allocation which, in Sussex alone, will take up an area the size of the Brighton conurbation, and which does not differentiate between affordable public housing and housing for the better-off. There is also the prospect of other infrastructure, such as a second Gatwick runway, and new giant reservoir proposals. We must counter these threats on a basis which allies us with the struggles of working people, rather than treating them with indifference or as an enemy.

Building these strong foundations for the defence of nature will need more clarity than the South Downs Campaign has shown. A campaign that demanded the inclusion within a National Park (correctly) of the creepy ugliness of Roedean Public School - sprawling above the Brighton chalk cliffs like some millionaire's daughters' version of Colditz - but rejected the inclusion of the yelping delight of working class Whitehawk Hill, with its Velvet Ants, Whitehawk Soldier Beetles, and drifts of Adonis Blues - was a campaign that had gone astray.
One incident encapsulates the dilemmas of  the campaign for the National Park, in a Downscape which has been so appallingly damaged by capitalist development. A member of one of our panels of witnesses was to make the case for the inclusion of a wooded combe and a collectively run allotment project on the edge of Brighton. He is a model activist. He has built firm bonds with the local working class community and has developed the allotments and woods as an educational project with a particular focus on young people who are at risk. He is a passionate believer in re-connecting our community with nature. Yet he had always said to me that the wider
Downs were 'rubbish' - a boring agribusiness arable desert far inferior to the rich urban fringe. I thought that raw notion would not go down well in a Public Inquiry about making that very landscape into a National Park, and persuaded him that he should on no account express it. At the Inquiry he gave his evidence passionately and persuasively. Too passionately, in fact, to withstand the temptation of honesty. He said plainly how he felt that the wider Downs were not worth much. They were an unattractive desert. Folk would do better by staying on the edge of town on sites like his. And, despite my unease, I knew that what he said had a large grain of truth. I turned it round, and asked the Inspector to take on board what he had said. A National Park that did not embrace people's most loved edge of
town Downland sites, and obliged them to 'minibus in' to the good stuff was one that was turning its back on the founding objectives of such Parks: to reconnect people en masse to landscapes of natural beauty.

The Inspector must have heard our message. That site is one of the only significant sites of the many that we advocated for that is now to be within the new Park.

  Peter Hodge, Sussex entomologist. Pers com.
  The boundary can be viewed on the Natural England website. Key
documents, including The South Downs Inquiry Report, dated 28th November 2008, are on the DEFRA website. Alice Holt is a new addition which is subject to consultation, but it will surely receive endorsement.

Dave Bangs is a countryside activist. He recently published A Freedom to Roam Guide to the Brighton Downs which may soon be reprinted price £15. FFI please contact dave at


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