A leading environmental lawyer has challenged Eastbourne council’s case for selling off the town’s four Downland farms.
Simon Boyle has produced a legal review for the Keep Our Downs Public campaign to persuade the council to think again over the proposed sale.
Mr Boyle, who lives in Eastbourne, firmly rejects many of the claims made by the council in a two-page Q&A in last week’s Herald and accuses the authority of secrecy and breaching the international Aarhus Convention requiring openness on environmental issues.
He questions the claim that farms are protected by 140 pages of covenants and criticises the council’s “lack of transparency” in not publishing the covenants on its website, referring people instead to the Land Registry, which charges for the service.
Mr Boyle said his own search for one of the farms indicates only seven restrictive covenants providing very limited protection. A request has now been made to the council under the Freedom of Information Act for copies of covenants.
The covenants were created when the council compulsorily purchased the land from the Chatsworth and Davies Gilbert estates in the 1920s and are largely designed for the benefit of those estates.
If the two estates exercise pre-emptive rights to buy back the farms they could wipe clean the covenants and sell the land on, should they wish, free of restrictions, says Mr Boyle. If another party buys the land from the council, negotiations over the covenants would then be with the original estates, not the council, he claims.
The council has not disclosed whether it would exercise its statutory right as the local authority to create new covenants on the sale of freehold interests, and this is the subject of another Freedom of Information request by campaigners.
Mr Boyle voices concern that the council’s management plan protecting the wildlife and flora would be compromised as new owners of the farms would have no obligation to continue the plan. And he questions the claim the sale could bring in up to £30million to spend on other local projects.
“This seems a very high figure given all four farms combined give a net income of less than £60,000,” he said. “This would indicate a realistic value far lower than that given. If a buyer were to pay the amount suggested they would seek a return on investment far higher than the current return. They would almost certainly look for changes of use, like a solar farm and/or a vineyard.”