Campaigners fighting to save the Downland farms from being sold by Eastbourne council to raise cash are trying to enlist the support of Sir David Attenborough and other high profile environmentalists.
Already television presenter and environmentalist Chris Packham has thrown his support behind the Keep Our Downs Public group, which was set up to fight the council’s plan to sell the freehold of Bullock Down, Black Robin, Chalk and Cornish farms.
Environmental lawyer Simon Boyle has also carried out an initial legal review for the campaign group and the findings sent to explorer Sir Crispin Agnew, Sir David Attenborough, David Dimbleby and TV presenter Ray Mears.
The legal review says the council’s claim that “140 pages of restrictive covenants will protect the Downland” after the farms are sold “appears to be inaccurate and misleading”.
Trevor Beattie, the chief executive for the South Downs National Park Authority, has also joined the debate saying the Downland estate is “not a disposable financial asset to be switched from one capital account to another on some bean-counter’s balance sheet”.
He said recently, “Local authorities can dispose of their assets as they see fit and we understand the financial pressures many now face. But these countryside sites were secured for the people in the 1930s by farsighted councils and campaigners who wanted to protect our landscapes and water supply in perpetuity. They are not just local assets, they are national legacies, now in a national park.”
The council however has hit back at the critics and the legal review.
“There has been a lot of misinformation in the public domain about the sale of the freehold of the four farms that is misleading people,” said a spokesperson.
“Local residents are encouraged to read the facts that have been uploaded at www.eastbourne.gov.uk
“One often repeated false claim is that the open or ‘public’ Downland is being sold. This is completely wrong, it is not.
“The Downland within the boundaries of Eastbourne consists of two parts, the open Downland, which is freely accessible to members of the public, and Downland farms.
“The public don’t have full access to these farms, apart from, in some places, public footpaths that cross the land. This access won’t change whoever owns the farms.
“And, most importantly, the farms will remain farms, that won’t change either.
“The vast majority of farms on the Downland are in private ownership and have been for generations.
“The South Downs National Park Authority oversees the protection of this land and the four farms, and will continue to do so, whoever owns them.
“Around £1million from the sale proceeds will be spent on improving the quality of the public open Downland, including much better signage and walking maps, new stiles, gates and seating and more secure pathways and improvements to the countryside centre.
“We will also use the money to support the council’s ambitious capital programme. This work will generate local jobs, new affordable housing, recreational facilities, such as the new swimming and leisure complex to replace the old Sovereign Centre, and the exciting Devonshire Quarter transformation.”