Environmental vandalism? Campaigners regroup to stop the Great Downland Sell-Off

Campaigners up and down the country are trying to stop public access land from going under the hammer as UK councils seek ways to plug the Government funding gap. JAN GOODEY reports
Parcels of land on the South Downs have been up for grabs no fewer than four times since 1994 and each time vociferous and well researched protestors have won the day

Unlike cutting adult social care, or day care provision - uplands, downlands or parks can be an easier option for councils looking to save costs.

However, in one part of the country that is proving to be far from true.

Parcels of land on the South Downs have been up for grabs no fewer than four times since 1994 and each time vociferous and well researched protestors have won the day.

This latest spat has seen the reformation of Keep Our Downs Public. Dave Bangs, a naturalist and author of three books on the Downs and the Weald, is one of the co-founders of the campaign group.

"We're surviving so far; this is the fourth time we've had to defend these public estates. The first time Brighton's [Lord] Bassam in ‘94 tried to privatise the whole lot. The Tories in Worthing tried to privatise the Downs near Cissbury Ring. We put a stop on that and it's now been made statutory access land. And now there have been no sales so far in Eastbourne."

This latest campaign went into vertical take-off, like in Worthing five years before when there was a 350 people demo at Cissbury Ring - this time it was near 400 at Beachy Head.

Eastbourne Borough Council was still looking to sell off the 3,000 acres of farmland surrounding the chalk grasslands there for £25m, until a public vote on the matter earlier this month went against the sale and the council agreed to think again.

"These are struggles against privatisation that can be won," said Bangs, "and particularly around the country where they are eminently winnable through a cross class coalition. These resources are of valuable to everyone, so you can get very broad alliances of people."

In Kent, campaigners are battling Thanet Council which agreed to the 'accelerated' sell-off of isle properties and land. Twenty-two sites were listed for disposal last year and hundreds more will be considered over the next two.

Ian Driver, a former councillor, described the policy as ‘environmental vandalism' and within hours of the initial announcement last year for planned sell offs at Broadstairs, more than 770 residents had signed a petition calling for a full public consultation.

In Worcestershire the Tory-led county council is looking to sell-off 6% of its smallholdings estate by 2020. Controversially this includes plots which were originally gifted to soldiers returning from the First World War.

In Leeds, the city council has put up for sale land on the outskirts of the city including land with Tree Preservation Orders at Yeadon as well as farmland at Grange Farm in Colton.

Last year an estimated £130m plus of council land and property was sold by authorities including Cambridgeshire County Council, Hereford County Council (investigated in 2016 after ‘misleading' tenants in estate sell-offs) Cornwall Council, Coventry City Council and Nottingham City Council.

This coincided with the Cabinet Office's setting up of a scheme to encourage councils to re-evaluate their properties and land and raise money from sales. It invested £38m in grants for local authorities to access professional advice on how to map  land and produce working asset registers.

Parcels of land on the South Downs have been up for grabs no fewer than four times since 1994 and each time vociferous and well researched protestors have won the day

With little financial support on their side, Sussex campaigners say the crunch will come this summer with a review of all the East Sussex County Council holdings, including the 6,000 acre Ashdown Forest, Seven Sisters Country Park, Ditchling Common and the Cuckoo Line trail.

"If we can't hold line then it's a case of dominos. We need to push East Sussex County Council into a corner so they don't win. It would be a disaster for Brighton's Downs, too," warned Dave Bangs.

The prospects for the long term aren't promising, especially if you look to the short history of public sector land which began as a consequence of the 70-year agricultural depression (1875-1939) when land values crashed and there was a massive concentration of 1930s ribbon development. This expansion of the ‘urban' ushered in a new era of landowners as land values went through the floor.

Tracts were purchased on a large scale by this new breed which led to  a doubling in size of London with octopus tentacles reaching out into the suburbs: Betjeman's Metroland. However, the National Trust was built on the back of all this which was decidedly good for the environment.

Land values haven't decreased now, despite the collapse of agriculture in the last 20 years and the rise of neo-liberal monetarism. The EU is also a major player here although now we are no longer using new land for food; rather deer farms, vineyards and hobby farms for the well-off.

This current south coast battle is of national significance: if a major part of the public estate is destroyed the prospect for landscape conservation becomes ever more precarious. The countryside could be further opened up to plutocratic predators, including many super-rich foreign investors.

We could end up with countryside reduced to residual ownership by the National Trust, RSPB and others, who by statute can't sell their land. All local authorities will have long since disbursed their holdings.

In the meantime, despite calling time last year on sales of Brighton's downland, the City Council commissioned what campaigners termed ‘a highly misleading and inaccurate report' saying that the only option was to continue with the sales of land next to the Devil's Dyke at Poynings, and Plumpton Hill. 

The ‘inconsistencies' raised by Sussex campaigners are mirrored in consultations  countrywide and include a lack of clarity on the amounts of money raised by sales and also a council's role on open access on statutory designated open access land.

Chris Todd of Brighton and Hove Friends of the Earth (FoE) explained: "The report claimed the sales were needed to fund the Stanmer restoration project [parkland estate] yet only 50% of the sales money is going towards Stanmer, the rest  is being frittered away elsewhere."

The report estimates that the Plumpton and Poynings sites (92 acres) will garner £360,000, which is less than £4,000 per acre, with the general price of farmland  two to three times that.

Poynings Field is a 25-acre site which lies between the base of the Devil's Dyke and the edge of Poynings village. It buffers and forms a natural frame around the Dyke and is partly vulnerable to actual built development, if sold. It is a core landscape element, with fossils and traditionally cropped, high-value farmland. 

Plumpton Hill is an SSSI and nationally important wildlife site with Bronze Age burial barrows and breath-taking views north, across the Weald.

A council spokesperson said:  "Their future is safeguarded because of their presence within the South Downs National Park, also ‘statutory designations' include Plumpton Hill's classification as a site of special scientific interest."

However Bangs argues that if this land should ever get into the hands of commercial, private concerns it will be managed in a way diametrically opposed to public access, conservation estates.

"They sell it for housing, industrial and sporting developments, and they ‘milk' the assets to increase revenues with industrialised farming, minerals quarrying, wind turbines, fracking, ‘posh food', ‘posh lets', commercial shooting and recreation, while keeping some favourite bits for their private enjoyment.

"This is the opposite of the conservation estate model. The Wildlife Trusts, City of London Corporation and Woodland Trust et cetera don't sell their land assets to fund capital projects. They raise funds or make shifts with modified management, if times are hard.

"They keep their lands as a perpetual public responsibility, as Brighton Council has done...through good times and bad.

City Councillors rejected a senior officers' recommendation to resume the sale of Plumpton Hill and Poynings Field at their last meeting.




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