Eastbourne Borough Council secretly passed the decision to sell off the downland farms that form part of the Eastbourne Downland holdings in October 2015.
Eastbourne residents were not made aware of this until February 2016 when the information was revealed in the local press.
This is a substantial part of the borough enjoyed by residents and tourists alike, much quoted in travel literature and considered to be The Gateway to the South Downs National Park. Eastbourne Borough Council has been less than forthright, under much public pressure, in explaining the reasons for this decision.
We now know that the farms were purchased compulsorily from the Chatsworth and Gilbert Estates under powers given by the Eastbourne Corporation Act 1926. During the stages of the Bill in Parliament, the council gave evidence to the House of Lords that the council would ensure that the character of the land was preserved in perpetuity. Lord Hartington MP intended to oppose the Bill and only withdrew his opposition when the council confirmed it would always ensure the use of the land and buildings for agriculture.
In reply to a question from a member of the public asking if other types of farming would be allowed on the farms once they are sold the council replied, “The farm tenancies state any agricultural change of use would require the landlord’s consent (this is currently the council but would transfer to the new owners).”
The council goes on to state, “As their leases will continue, it is hard to envisage there will be significant change.” No it isn’t. If the landlord’s consent is required to change the terms of the lease as regards agricultural change of use then it is just a matter of negotiation between the tenant farmer and the new owner. Presumably the new owner will be looking to generate a good return from his holdings and cannot be guaranteed to have the same environmental and ecological concerns as the previous owner, Eastbourne Borough Council.
On a purely financial basis, when asked how much capital receipt the council would receive from the sale it replied, “The capital receipt is anticipated to be between £15 and £30million.” Just taking into account the proposed capital costs of the Sovereign Centre (£24m) and the Devonshire Park Project (£44m) this is a relatively small sum, especially given the differential between the two figures.
One wonders why this wide disparity and whether the council is therefore willing to give away such a valuable asset at half price if there are no expressions of interest.
On the subject of consultation the council states that, “Engagement with interested groups and stakeholders has taken place. FAQs and the associated information on the council’s website ... now form the public engagement part of the proposal and will be used to inform a final decision on this matter.”
No. Undertaking engagement with interested groups and stakeholders and publishing a carefully selected set of FAQs is not sufficient public engagement. The downland farms represent a very large section of the borough and a national site of ecological, historical and environmental importance. A project of this size and importance deserves proper, inclusive public consultation. The ratepayers of Eastbourne are all stakeholders in this and deserve to be involved.
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