By Jess Price
Brighton and Hove City Council (BHCC) currently have a golden opportunity to restore a precious area of ancient chalk downland, protecting cultural heritage and a drinking water aquifer whilst providing public access and recreation. Will they take this chance, or revert to short-term financial gain over long-term public benefit?
In June, the Sussex Wildlife Trust found out that BHCC was discussing the future of both Waterhall and Hollingbury Park Golf Courses. The two sites, of around 300 acres within the South Downs National Park, are owned by BHCC, but leased out to a leisure management group. Sadly the dramatic fall in membership mean that neither of the Golf Clubs are viable in the long term. The current manager is losing money and doesn’t want to renew the lease when it expires in March.
Hollingbury Park golf course sits within Wild Park Local Nature Reserve, whilst Waterhall golf course is within the Waterhall Local Wildlife Site and of course both are within the Living Coast Biosphere and the Council’s own Downland Estate. So I was pretty disheartened to see that the officer’s report that set out options to the Tourism, Development & Culture Committee back in June, was entirely focused on maintaining the sites for golf in the future with little mention of their biodiversity value and potential.
I understand that finances are extremely challenging for Local Authorities, but given the climate and ecological emergencies we are all facing, this is a time for considering the long-term public benefits of decisions made now. Luckily some of the councillors on the committee from the Green Party also saw the potential and asked for an amendment. This requires officers to consider bringing the operation of both golf courses back in-house, with the option to convert one or both of the courses into a different type of leisure facility or environmental space.
This means there is now a fantastic chance to consider the true potential of these sites for both people and wildlife. An alliance of local people, community groups and organisations, including the Sussex Wildlife Trust, want BHCC to restore the sites, re-creating internationally rare chalk grassland and promoting community-led agriculture and free public access. But time is very short. An advert has gone out seeking a tenant to manage the sites either as golf courses or for an alternative ‘leisure, recreation, education or conservation’ use and we are very worried that if someone offers BHCC a good price, they’ll take it regardless of the missed opportunity to restore this valuable land.
We need to demand an open, transparent council that thinks about its assets into the long term. Listening to its residents and responding with positive action to conserve and enhance our precious Downs, not continue to erode this wonderful resource that gives us fresh air, wildlife, rich archaeological history, our drinking water and absorbs carbon dioxide!
The new lease will be for a minimum of 25 years, so this really is a once in a generation chance to restore a significant part of the Brighton downland estate.
The decision is potentially going to be made at the next committee meeting in November, so the Brighton Downs Alliance is working to raise awareness of this opportunity. If you live in Brighton & Hove, please let your councillors know that we want the Brighton Downs to be climate resilient and biodiverse, accessible and open for all residents and visitors to enjoy.