Concerns raised over council's biggest sell-off of downland in 20 years

Tony Gosling tony at
Thu Nov 17 22:03:28 GMT 2016

Concerns raised over council's biggest sell-off of downland in 20 years

9 Nov 2016 / 

MORE than 100 acres of downland held in public 
ownership for decades is being flogged off in the 
biggest sale of its kind for 20 years.

Campaigners are calling for a freeze on the 120 
acre downland sell-off by Brighton and Hove City 
Council warning of damaging repercussions for the 
South Downs with a loss of public access and 
reduced conservation at important wildlife sites.

The sales are being arranged by the cash-strapped 
council, which has to find £18 million of cuts in 
the next financial year and £145 million by 2020.

The sale includes two sites of special scientific 
interest, part of a Scheduled Ancient Monument, a 
50-year old nature reserve and two vital parts of 
the Devil’s Dyke setting according to opponents of the sale.

Council bosses said the land represented just one 
per cent of its 12,000 acre Downland estate, the 
equivalent of around 7,000 football pitches, with 
the sale of "less valuable heritage assets" in a 
bid to help fund the £5.8 million 
Park restoration project.

Campaigners are concerned that the sales could be 
just the beginning of a wider sell-off but 
council officials insisted no more are planned at present.

Land sales causing campaigners concern include 
three acres of The Junipers at the old Sussex 
Wildlife Trust Saddlescombe Nature Reserve sold 
to a private buyer for the “paltry sum of £35,000”.

Environmentalists say it is the sole remaining 
site for juniper in East Sussex, a well-known 
site for rare orchid species and bats, and “the 
single most important plot” in the whole Downland estate.

Devil’s Dyke Field has been sold to its tenant 
while the ten-acre Park Wall Farm at Falmer was 
snapped up for £175,000 though the council said 
it would be protected as grazing land.

Campaigners are also unhappy about the proposed 
sale of the 22-acre site The Racecourse outside 
Poynings, “a wonderful fossil site” that is the 
match of the better-known Bridport Cliffs in 
Dorset, and the loss from public ownership of 
Plumpton Hill Scarp though the council has said 
this will continue to be farmed by Plumpton 
College with public access fixed in perpetuity.

Environmental campaigner Dave Bangs said all the 
land should be kept in public ownership in perpetuity.

He added: “These sales open the door to 
privatisation of Brighton’s entire Downland Estate.

“Without democratic public accountability we must 
expect threats to public usage, neglect, damage 
to important wildlife habitat, inappropriate 
development, and more shooting and hunting."

Chris Todd, of Brighton and Hove Friends of the 
Earth, said: "We have real concerns about this, 
most of the public is largely unaware of what is being done.

“I think people thought it was just a few minor 
old buildings or pieces of land of small value 
whereas they are proposing to sell hugely important wildlife sites."

A city council spokeswoman said: “The sites 
chosen are non-core assets owned by the council, 
some of which are outside the city’s boundaries.

“Most of the Downland Estate is within the 
Downs National Park and protected by the highest 
level of statutory protection possible.

“When the council sells land we take advice from 
specialist agents to make sure appropriate 
control mechanisms are put in place to protect 
the council and the city’s residents against 
future development or possible changes in use.”


SIR Herbert Carden is one of the founding fathers 
of Brighton and the city’s impressive downland 
landholding is considered by many to be his greatest legacy.

His vision, 80 years before the 
Downs National Park was created, was to preserve 
the Downs for the enjoyment of its residents and 
protect the city’s water supply.

Sir Herbert was prepared to back up his ideology 
with his wallet, buying land when it became 
available and reselling it to the council at no profit.

It is a vision and an example that subsequent 
Labour politicians in the city have failed to 
live up to, according to environmentalists 
opposed to proposals to sell up to 120 acres of publicly owned downland.

Chris Todd, of Brighton and Hove Friends of the 
Earth, said: “The council is seeing this land 
purely as a money-making resource but it was 
originally purchased to protect the area from 
development and protect the water supply.

“It was purchased for its conservation value and 
that has been completely forgotten.

“I think we have lost a bit of vision in the city.”

For environmental campaigners with long memories, 
talk of downland sales under a Labour council is a strong case of déjà vu.

In 1995 Brighton Borough Council proposed the 
sale of large swathes of the estate.

The proposals, prompted by financial concerns 
following a change in local government financing, 
were reined in, in the face of widespread opposition.

Mr Todd said: “20 years ago the council tried to 
sell off the downland thinking it wasn’t really 
valued and they got a rude awakening.

“Since then the council has respected the public 
desire to maintain public ownership of the Downs.

“They might not be trying to sell off on the same 
scale this time but these are nationally 
important wildlife sites being sold off.”

Two decades on, the move is again being driven by 
financial necessity, this time to raise around 
£2.5 million of match-funding for the 
Park restoration.

Brighton and Hove City Council said it had been 
forced to “plan creatively” to save one of the 
city’s “most picturesque, historically significant and most visited parks”.

But environmentalists claim that the land being 
sold off is of greater environmental value than Stanmer Park.

Brighton-based author and environmental 
campaigner Dave Bangs said: “We estimate that the 
total sum gained so far from these sales is around £290,000.

“This is below the price of one suburban semi in 
many parts of Brighton and a pathetic sum for 
such dreadful losses of land with multiple public values.”

Maintenance, let alone restoration, of the city’s 
heritage gems and green spaces is becoming 
increasingly strained with ever dwindling budgets 
– austerity measures will mean the council will 
have cut £145million from its budget between 2011 and 2020.

It means that for major works, such as the 
long-proposed restoration of Stanmer Park, the 
authority is largely reliant on outside bodies 
such as the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Even then the council is expected to do its part 
in match-funding what it receives.

In times of plenty, that additional funding could 
be found within existing budgets and reserves but 
now funding has to be found through selling 
assets – assets which could provide revenue for the council for years to come.

There remain serious reservations over the 
proposed £5.8 million Stanmer Park project which 
includes the restoration of 20 hectares of the 
park’s landscape, reconfiguring traffic and 
creating new horticultural training opportunities.

Mr Todd said: “I think it is a good idea to 
reduce the number of cars in the park by 
increasing the perimeter car parking but not at 
the cost of so many trees while the idea of 
having a supermarket sized car park in the middle 
is illogical and nonsensical.”

Of real concern for campaigners now opposing the 
sell-off is the question of what will happen to 
land once it goes into public ownership.

The past history is not good according to Mr Bangs.

A 2011 report by campaigners revealed that more 
than half of Forestry Commission land sold in and 
around Sussex had been made inaccessible to 
walkers after passing into private hands.

Barriers built up along public rights of way, 
breaches of environmental safety standards by 
hunting and the dividing up of woodland were all observed.

Mr Bangs said: “It’s happened before.

“St Mary’s Farm, which was sold by Brighton 
Council, had ancient pasture and woods bulldozed 
and it’s now a game bird shoot.

“Woods sold by the Forestry Commission are now 
without public access, neglected and used for shooting.

Residents are being reassured that downland will 
continue to be protected under private ownership.

A South Downs National Park spokesman said: “We 
work closely with both private and local authority landowners.

“Approximately 60 per cent of the National Park, 
all of it in private hands, is now covered by 
‘farm clusters’ – groups of farmers and 
landowners working together to make a real 
difference to our landscapes, habitats and 
wildlife that they couldn’t achieve alone.

“Planning permission would be required before any 
land could change from agriculture to other uses.

“For public rights of way an owner would need to 
apply for permission to change rights and this is 
very unlikely to be approved.”

But Mr Todd warned that private sector ownership 
was likely to leave a negative impact.

He said: “You are not going to get huge housing 
development suddenly appearing on the Downs but 
you could see incremental development which in its way is the most damaging.

“What’s more likely is that the land could be 
ploughed up which makes it less accessible “The 
people who buy this land will want to get a 
commercial return on it, managing the wildlife is 
not likely to be their number one priority.”

And the worst case scenario is that downland 
could fall into the hands of unscrupulous 
landowners who show disregard for wildlife conservation.

Earlier this year, campaigners were left aghast 
at the damage wreaked by wealthy landowner 
Hyatt who ordered the felling of 13 acres of 
ancient forest at 
Wood near Hurstpierpoint.

Mr Todd said: “Although Pondtail Wood was not 
sold from public ownership, there is nothing to 
stop somebody from purchasing land from Brighton 
and Hove City Council and selling it on.

“Anyone could end up with these bits of land and 
could do all sorts of things before authorities 
can step in to do something about it.”


Expert view by Simon Lewis

I EXPECT that a lot of these pieces of land will 
go to neighbouring properties depending on their 
location and proximity to other landowners.

The site at Saddlescombe is just three acres of 
scrubland which could go to anybody really.

I imagine it would probably be most attractive to 
someone from the horsey community, someone who 
wanted a nice little site for their pony.

It’s far more likely to be used for recreation, 
for a pony, than for any kind of shoot or anything like that.

Plumpton Hill is the last of the sites to go and 
it has an agricultural tenancy on it so there is 
almost no chance of getting vacant possession on 
that unless the college goes out of existence.

I would expect it would go to an institution, it 
certainly isn’t a very profitable investment so 
that is why it is going for such a low price.

It’s highly unlikely that it would get anything through planning for the sites.

It depends a lot on the proximity to the villages 
and to other buildings but I would be very 
surprised to see any development on them whatsoever.

Even for horses you would have to get planning 
permission for a stable though you could try for something temporary.
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