A Conservative motion for a referendum on the downland sale was blocked at a full council meeting yesterday evening (Wednesday, February 22) by a Liberal Democrat amendment.
The motion, put forward by Councillor Barry Taylor, was countered by Councillor John Ungar’s amendment suggesting the Eastbourne Review and online Q&As are sufficient public consultation.
But protesters in the public gallery of the Town Hall meeting were not satisfied.
Seven speakers argued against the sale of the South Downs farms, raising issues such as the town’s water supply being at risk from pesticides, that the Eastbourne Review has not been delivered to every house, and the council would not be able to impose management requirements on subsequent land owners.
Leader of the Conservative group, Councillor Tony Freebody described the Review as “Lib Dem propaganda”, and argued there should be a full public consultation, with both sides putting their cases forward.
Council Leader David Tutt countered that the call for a referendum was a “cynical, opportunistic” ploy by the Conservatives who had not argued with the proposals when first announced in 2015.
[ Cllr Freebody even admitted from a business point of view selling was a “no-brainer”].
Cllr Tutt added the Review costs 1/20th of a referendum – which would set the council back more than £140,000.
“We don’t have a magic wand to say where the money will come from,” he said.
However, Tory Councillor Robert Smart, who called the Review a “sham referendum on the cheap”, asked, “What price, democracy?”
Cllr Colin Belsey said the council should borrow money rather than sell the farms. But, as Lib Dem councillors pointed out, that contradicted a Conservative point earlier in the meeting that the council was borrowing far too much.
He also added that someone had said to him choosing to sell the farmland rather than have the cuts proposed in the Review was like “Mortgaging your house to pay for your grass cutting”.
Lib Dem Cllr Jonathan Dow gave a passionate speech defending the cabinet’s position, saying Government pressures have led to difficult choices. Expressing disappointment with being portrayed as dishonest, he said, “I have done my best to explain the reasons this proposal has come about. We are honest people with the town’s interests at heart.”
Cllr Taylor, however, questioned the council’s reliance on covenants to protect the land. Quoting the South Downs National Park Planning Committe rules, he said, “Restrictive covenants would not be taken into consideration.”
Protesters were disappointed with the result of the amendment vote, which all Conservatives and independent Kathy Ballard voted against and all Lib Dems voted for.
Present at the meeting, Mead resident Sally Boys said, “Now the council have let the people of Eastbourne down again by insisting that the poll in the Eastbourne Review is a fair consultation, the campaigners will continue with their high public profile.
“That’s why we’ve organised a rally on Saturday”.
A demonstration against the sale will take place on Saturday, (February 25) on Terminus Road from 2pm.