The future of public land
By Phil Belden
Public ownership provides people the opportunity to influence the way their land is managed, constituents talking with their councillors and council officers to achieve commendable conservation and access gains. Unless there is a benign private owner, there can be no guarantees.
Covenants and restrictions placed on land are weak, often over-turned and lost over time. Much of the land has protective designations, but not as effective as ownership. Telling example: Twyford Down Winchester, wildlife and archaeology legal “protected”, both destroyed with the M3 road-cutting; Southwick Hill, Shoreham, owned by National Trust, but no legal wildlife or archaeology designations, protected by twin-tunnels bored through for the A27 Brighton bypass.
Land sold to the highest bidder means purchasers looking for a good return on their investment, likely re-development of the various properties on the land and “diversification”. Currently, most of the public land is mixed-farming arable and grass, with small copses and public open space. Intensification out of traditional downland management practices seems inevitable: horsey-culture, with fencing, jumps, shelters etc and risks of over-grazing and sward-deterioration, detrimental to our wildlife; climate change is moving “champagne country” north to the free-draining chalk on sunny downland slopes, grape-growing means high fences (to exclude deer), reliance on chemical sprays, plant and equipment needed to process the product; urban-fringe development a common problem, some with planning permission, some falling outside its remit, others illegal or as a result of neglect and abuse.
Selling on the open market makes it unlikely a benign conservation charity could buy it and the tenant farmers would be hard-pressed to find the big purchase sums needed. In the early 1980s Brighton council sold Mary Farm, which found its way into the hands of investment banks / pension funds, which rented the land to an intensive agri-businessman, who ploughed up all the “permanent” chalk grassland and a commercial game-shoot that bulldozed the woodland-centres for rearing/feeding pens.
Retaining public ownership provides people with the ability to influence the public landowner, the council holding the land in trust for its people. Our democratic system enables us to talk to our elected representatives and their officers, or put pressure on them if necessary. Look at what’s been achieved in the recent past. Today, we rise up and protest, get the councils to respect the wishes of their people. If they listen and act, and STOP the sales, tomorrow we sit down with them to better nurture our green and pleasant land.
Read more about Local Authority land disposals