By Phil Belden
The people of the Brighton conurbation own a pearl necklace embracing their city, downland jewels collected over the years; Eastbourne people own all their beautiful downland in the borough. Public land ownership spread rapidly thanks to preservation and access movements in the 1920s.
Over recent weeks local people have been finding out about secret council plans to sell-off their downland. It never pays to be complacent with democracy; after years of trusting our councils to look after our land, they’ve betrayed us. Two are in the news, Brighton & Hove and Eastbourne.
Brighton downland estate stretches from Shoreham to Saltdean (5,000 hectares), acquired to protect our drinking water supply, to control development and, as the dedication at Devil’s Dyke states, “to the use of the public for ever”. Through a 1920s Act of Parliament, the people of Eastbourne own all the downland from Beachy Head to the escarpment near Polegate (1,600 hectares), secured for “the free and open use of the Downs in perpetuity”.
The 1980s saw growing concerns on the Eastbourne Downs over fragmentation of internationally rare chalk grassland, divided by arable fields, poorly managed with gang-mowing and coastal erosion reducing its size, also, warnings of agricultural intensification, with build-up of high levels of nitrates in the drinking water supply. The council’s positive response to these public worries: reverting arable to grassland, employing a downland ranger, and shepherds with flocks to sympathetically manage the pastures. The main focus was on the Beachy Head coastal strip, but over the years, through the Eastbourne Downland Management Plan, conservation management has spread across the entire estate.
Following a huge public protest in the 1990s, when Brighton’s downland was proposed for sell-off, the council instead reinforced its policies, to incorporate protection, conservation and access. The Downland Initiative has enabled the enhancement of tenant farm-holdings and public open-space: more land into agri-environment, arable reversion linking up areas of chalk grassland, protecting archaeology, safeguarding drinking water supplies by reducing nitrate use; reversing declines in our farmland birds; bee and butterfly banks; restored dew-ponds; hedge-laying and woodland management. Also, open access, linking town to down, for example: Stanmer Park to Ditchling Beacon / South Downs Way and across to the London Road and Chattri memorial. This has been further enhanced by international Biosphere status being granted to the downland, from Rivers Adur to Ouse, and National Park status.
The two councils seem to have forgotten their duty to protect our land, deciding to sell it off. For now, it’s nibbling away at the Brighton edges, but this includes a former Sussex Wildlife Trust nature reserve, land managed by the National Trust, rare chalk grassland and parts of the Devil’s Dyke estate. Much more dramatically, it’s 75% of Eastbourne’s downland, everything between Beachy Head and Butts Brow open spaces.
The good news is that Brighton & Hove council recently decided to halt the sale of two parcels of downland, the next step will be to ensure this land is permanently stopped from sale.
Read more about Local Authority land disposals