Leader of Eastbourne Borough Council David Tutt held a meeting at the Town Hall on Tuesday with members of the public concerned about the council’s sale of downland farms. It was often a heated one.
Councillor Tutt gave a speech before opening the floor to representatives of Eastbourne Friends of the Earth and Keep Our Downs Public and then answering questions from the large audience.
Mr Tutt said, “I enjoy the Downs as much as anybody. There’s clearly been some misunderstanding about what we plan to do.
“We aren’t selling the open downland.
“It’s about keeping these farms as farms – all the same people will continue to run it. The only difference is going to be actual improvements.”
He said there are covenants in place to protect the land, and the sale will provide much-needed funds to redevelop the town.
If the sale takes place, he said, a figure of £1million is to be injected into council projects like improving the public footpaths across the open downland, replacing the Sovereign Centre, and reinvigorating Devonshire Park and Princes Park cafe.
Mr Tutt rejected calls for a public consultation on the matter and said the council is currently in the sale process and looking to sell for a figure of between £15million and £30million.
First speaker Andrew Durling, from Friends of the Earth, said, “There are no safeguards or guarantees that could be put in place that would ensure, after a sale, that the farms would be managed as well as it has been up to now, or that damaging agricultural practices would not be reintroduced, undoing all of the good work done by the Council and the tenant farmers on the estate up until now.
“It should be remembered that the chalk aquifer that supplies most of Eastbourne with its drinking water lies directly underneath the four farms, so any overuse of nitrates or other agricultural chemicals on those farms would have a damaging impact upon the quality of the local drinking water.”
The feeling of a lot of people present, including speakers Andrew Durling and Dave Bangs, from the Keep Our Downs Public campaign group, was that the public hadn’t been made aware of the plans and the cabinet had made the decision in November 2015 in “secrecy”.
Mr Tutt responded saying if that was the case he would not be holding the meeting in the first place.
Dave Bangs said, “It looks like the public don’t know what’s going on. We talk about it like a minor sale. The four farms consist of 3,100 acres. That’s 75 per cent of the downland estate for sale. That’s a large resource.”
After the meeting, a council spokesperson said that the four farms in question in fact add up to approximately 2,900 acres of land, and the council will still retain approximately 1,000 acres of open downland that it owns, including Beachy Head.
People at the meeting were also concerned that the council must first offer the land at full market value to the estates, including Devonshire Estate, before offering the sale to the farmers currently living on the land.
Mr Bangs said, “Devonshire Estate are property developers. The land was originally bought by the council as a conservation resource – they never intended to sell it.
“Now the Liberal Democrat council is selling off the estate to property developers from whom it was bought.”
Following the meeting, Jenny Shorter from the Keep Our Downs Public campaign said, “We were really disappointed that Mr Tutt said he would not hold a public consultation despite numerous calls for one during the meeting.
“He failed to grasp our concerns about the future use of this land should it be sold and it was really misleading of him to guarantee that nothing will change – he cannot make this guarantee if this land passes into private hands.
“Councillors are the servants of the people of Eastbourne, but Mr Tutt really wasn’t listening.”
Andrew Durling said, “Councillor Tutt failed to answer many of the concerns about the sale fully, and he refused our demand for an immediate halt to the sale until those concerns have been fully explored.
“This has only increased the resolve of myself and my colleagues to intensify our campaign to stop the sale, especially as public opinion is on the side of keeping this well-loved part of Eastbourne’s heritage in public hands rather than using it as a cash cow to fund big council projects.”
A petition has so far got more than 500 signatures. It is available at www.actionnetwork.org/petitions/stop-the-sell-off-of-eastbournes-public-downland.