Eastbourne's downland farms: The big questions answered

Plans by Eastbourne Borough Council to sell the freeholds of downland farms have sparked controversy and a flood of concerns.

Tuesday, 24th January 2017, 3:06 pm
Updated Tuesday, 24th January 2017, 3:13 pm
Black Robin Farm near Beachy Head ... one of four earmarked to be sold

The authority, keen to get the public on side as it continues talks with farmers and potential buyers, has put some of the various issues under the spotlight with a series of frequently asked questions – and the answers.

What is the council proposing to sell?

The council is considering disposal of its freehold interest in four working farms – Black Robin, Bullock Down, Chalk and Cornish – and a smallholding on the downland.

In total the working farms’ land proposed for disposal is approximately 2,900 acres. We will still be retaining the freehold interest in, and continuing to look after, more than 1,000 acres of open downland, including Beachy Head.

In addition, the council also owns the freehold to the water system that supplies these and other properties on the downland. A water management company will manage this if it is agreed that the working farms are to be sold. It is important to note these are working farms, with restricted public access, and are not part of the open downland.

Why are the downland farms being sold?

The council is only considering selling its freehold interest in the downland working farms because we are satisfied there are sufficient protections in place that will prevent development of this land and ensure the farms will continue to operate as working farms in the future.

Central Government funding to the council is being cut and the gap is getting wider between the funding we need to protect frontline services and the funding we have available.

We want to invest in the prosperity of Eastbourne and deliver exciting projects for the town that will create improved and new facilities for our communities, additional attractions and support the town’s economy. This means difficult decisions need to be made.

When was the decision made to sell the farms and who made it?

A final decision has not yet been made on whether to sell the council’s freehold in the downland working farms.

The initial decision was made in October 2015 by the council’s Cabinet and ratified at Full Council in November 2015. This gave council officers the authority to further explore the proposed freehold sale, and this work is continuing.

A final decision on whether or not to proceed to the open market could be made once officers have completed their investigations and carried out due diligence.

Why wasn’’t the October 2015 Downland farms Cabinet report published? Can we see the report?

The report was confidential as it contains commercially sensitive information.

If it is agreed to sell the Downland farms, when will they be sold?

Once a final decision is made, the downland working farms would be marketed at the earliest opportunity.

Depending on the level of interest and negotiations, a sale could be completed by winter 2017. The working farms will not be sold until a final decision has been made.

What protection will there be for the downland? How will restrictive covenants be enforced?

The working farms are already subject to the same protection and restrictive covenants that would apply post-sale.

Any change in ownership would not alter this position.

It is important to remember the existing covenants on the land have been in place for many years, and there are no proposals to attempt to lift any of the covenants before any proposed sale. There are also other relevant protections in place. Public Rights of Way, bridle paths and other existing public access across the working farms and retained open downland would remain. The working farms’ land also falls within the South Downs National Park and there are stringent rules in the South Downs Management Plan about what the land can be used for. This will continue to exist should the council’s freehold be sold.

In addition, there is some protection under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. One of the farms is within the Seaford to Beachy Head Site of Special Scientific Interest and another of the farms is within the Willingdon Down Site of Special Scientific Interest. All of the farms are within Heritage Coast land and all contain Scheduled Monuments.

All designations will serve to restrict what can be done within the downland working farms and would allow various different bodies to seek to take enforcement action as and when appropriate, which is the case at present. Additionally, the beneficiaries of the restrictive covenants (there are multiple covenants with numerous beneficiaries) would also be able to enforce against a breach of the covenants – as is the case now.

Where is the list of covenants available publicly?

This information is available via the Land Registry at https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/land-registry

What protection will there be for the farmers?

Key to any proposed sale is the protection of the farmers. Discussions have been had with the farmers on their best options and we are continuing to engage with them to understand their personal wishes.

All of the farmers have rights of tenancy and, in some cases, that equates to a lifetime tenancy. Only the freehold of the farms is being proposed for sale, so the existing leases would continue as now.

Will the downland be at risk of fracking after the sale?

Current Government policy is that fracking cannot be carried out within national parks.

The downland sits within the South Downs National Park so would be protected under this policy – this wouldn’t change if the council sold its freehold interest in the downland working farms.

The council has also made a public commitment to oppose fracking activity of any form, and this is still our position.

Would other types of farming be allowed on the farms once they are sold?

The farm tenancies state any agricultural change of use would require landlord’s consent (this is currently the council but would transfer to the new owners).

Each request would be considered on a case by case basis as it would depend on what was proposed and what permissions might be needed.

For example there would be restrictions on intensive farming enterprises, such as pig farming. It is important to note the existing tenant farmers have rights of tenancy and have been farming the land for some considerable time. As their leases will continue, it is hard to envisage there will be significant change.

Is there any protection ensuring that damaging agriculture processes are not introduced on the land after the sale?

There are various statutory designations which affect agricultural practices in the UK and which would prevent damaging agricultural practices. In addition, in order to plough areas of permanent pasture with an area of over two hectares which has been uncultivated for 15 years or more, consent from Natural England would be required.

What protection is there for the chalk aquifer underneath the farms?

There is protection in place against nitrates or other agriculture chemicals, both through EU directives and UK Government Statutory Instrument. Land users who do not follow the advice on avoiding water pollution as set out within legislation will be pursued and potentially prosecuted by the Environment Agency.

What protection is there to ensure inappropriate development won’t happen in the future?

The council is only considering disposal of its freehold interest in the downland working farms because we are satisfied there are sufficient protections in place that will prevent development of this land and ensure the farms will continue to operate as working farms in the future.

The downland working farms are within the South Downs National Park and are already subject to the same protection and restrictive covenants that would apply post-sale. Any change in ownership would not change this position.

Restrictive covenants have been in place for many years, and these will remain. There are also other relevant protections in place to protect Public Rights of Way, bridle paths and other existing public access across the downland working farms and the open downland that the council would retain. There is also some protection in place under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and for Sites of Special Scientific Interest.

All of these designations will serve to restrict what can be done within the working farms and would allow various different bodies to seek to take enforcement action as and when appropriate, which is the case at present.

How much capital receipt will the council make from the proposed sale?

If the council does sell its freehold interest in the downland working farms, the capital receipt is anticipated to be between £15million and £30million.

How will capital receipts be spent on projects and services in Eastbourne?

It is envisaged approximately £1 million of the capital receipt from the downland working farms will be earmarked for improvements on the open downland that the council is retaining.

The balance of the receipt will go towards supporting job creation, town centre improvements, housing and other key council projects such as replacing the Sovereign Centre, Devonshire Park Quarter and investing in assets that provide a better yield to help protect frontline services.

Have the estates shown any interest in buying the farms?

The council has a statutory commitment to two estates, the Gilbert Estate and the Devonshire Estate, that have pre-emption rights or first refusal over the land and these discussions are on-going.

Have any of the farmers shown an interest in purchasing their farms and are they financially stable enough to buy them safely?

Discussions have been had with the farmers on their best options and we are continuing to engage with them to understand their personal wishes.

Will restrictive covenants affect the value of the land?

There are already restrictive covenants on the downland working farms’ land, and these do influence the value of the land.

What consultation has the council undertaken?

Council officers have been undertaking due diligence and exploring the proposed disposal over the last year, so it hasn’t been appropriate to publicise anything on our website previously.

However, the council has already undertaken engagement with interested groups and stakeholders. These FAQs, and the associated information on the council’s website about the proposed freehold disposal, now form the public engagement part of the proposal and will be used to inform a final decision on this matter.

If the land comes up for sale again in the future, will the council have a say in who the buyers are or buy back the land itself?

The council is unlikely to be in a financial position to purchase back the freehold and will have no say in future sales.

What is the rental income from the farms?

The council currently receives less than £60,000 net rental income per annum from the downland working farms.

Have you started the Devonshire Park complex without the funds to pay for it?

The reality is the council has to realise sufficient capital to enable it to do a range of things, including new capital projects, repairs and maintenance, and income generation initiatives to ensure the future sustainability of the town at a time of reduced funding from Central Government.

We are also able to source borrowing, which is currently at low interest rates.

The Devonshire Park project is the biggest project the council has ever undertaken and will provide significant benefits. The council is investing £44million which will generate £13million in the local economy per annum, generate 190 full-time equivalent jobs in the economy, additional 22 bed spaces and 114 short-term construction jobs. Funds are available to complete the works but using some of the capital receipts from the sale will help support the council’s adopted capital programme which includes the Devonshire Park project.

There is an ex-NATO premises north of Bullock Down Farm – is this being sold?

This site was surrendered back to the council in 2001 by the Ministry of Defence.

There is a radio mast on the site and this and the surrounding compound is currently leased to Southdown Amateur Radio Society. Access can only be made across farm land and therefore this site would be sold as part of the downland working farms if the council agrees to proceed with the sale.