9 Nov 2016 / Neil Vowles
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 Stanmer 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 South 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.
THESE ARE NATIONALLY IMPORTANT WILDLIFE SITES
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 South 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 d j 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 Stanmer 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 £145 million 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 James Hyatt who ordered the felling of 13 acres of ancient forest at Pondtail 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.
RECREATION USE LIKELY
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.