The Eastbourne Herald interviewed the leader of the Eastbourne Borough Council on the issue of the proposed sale of four downland farms, comprising 3,000 acres of South Downs land.
Why are you proposing to sell the farms?
“What we are doing is because of cuts in the Government grants.
“The Brighton and Hove budget meeting had £20m worth of cuts.
“There are very real challenges we are all facing.
“We can cut local expenditure.
“We haven’t tried to sensationalise anything.”
Given that many have said they haven’t received their copy yet, will you extend the deadline for the return of the Eastbourne Review?
“That would be getting into dangerous territory. The issue has had coverage across the town, through the media and campaign groups have got their message out.
“We are checking with Royal Mail that it is delivered to every home and it is available at the Tourist Information Centre.”
“The Conservatives are being totally opportunistic. Even now they are not saying whether they are for or against.
“If they really wanted a referendum they should have moved an amendment in the budget for its cost.
“But I think they are embarrassed. We are in this situation because the Government keeps taking our money away.
Why don’t you oppose Government cuts?
“We do oppose cuts! I have lobbied to the association of Liberal Democrat councillors.
“We have all lobbied as hard as we can.
“The Government has been passing problems to local government to take the blame.
“We have lost £6m a year since 2010 of a net budget of £15m. It’s not a nice choice we face.
What would you like to say to campaigners raising concerns that changing the land’s management will affect the town’s water supply?
“We will set up a company to protect the water supply. If I wasn’t certain the water supply would be secure and downlands would actually improve I would not be proposing this.
Are covenants enough to protect the land?
“The covenants currently in place are not going to be the sole covenants we will rely on.
“We will ring fence money from the sale for legal action if required.
“Covenants are only as strong as the people who put them in place are willing to enforce them.
What about selling to the Chatsworth and Gildredge Estates, which must be sold to ‘without restrictions’?
“My understanding is if they buy it at the moment they could ignore the covenants because they put them there in the first place.
“We will be willing to sell but only if they accept new covenants. If not we are not prepared to go ahead with the sale.
“The new covenants are the important ones. That’s why I’m asking the protest groups to work with us to ensure they are comprehensive.”
The Eastbourne Review pits selling the farms against cuts to public spending, but capitalmoney can’t go towards revenue spending?
“We will take the receipt from the downs, invest in other assets and the return of 6-7 per cent from Victoria Mansions.
“The dividend from that will protect front line services, from the revenue they provide to support the budget.
Who is going to buy land like this?
“Different people invest for different reasons. It may be a low risk investment for someone. Or a wealthy individual who may wish to avoid paying tax on a sum of money and safeguard it for their family for future generations.
Is it a divisive question in the poll?
“We have shared the problem that we have been left with. If we don’t sell the farmland we will have to take some other action.
“If we were being sensationalist, we would suggest something like concrete over the Carpet Gardens or close theatres.
“All the cuts we are proposing have happened in other parts of the South East.
“I wonder if Barry Taylor will call a referendum on the ESCC proposal to sell Seven Sisters land?
“We are trying to improve the downland for other people to enjoy. In a few years people will think ‘what was the fuss about?’
Given that the current covenants are only available to the public through the Land Registry at a cost of around £200, is the council being transparent?
“We have tried to be as open as possible. I have never known a process as open to public opinion. Why aren’t people protesting the cuts the county council is making to social care and children’s services – £17m of cuts – it’s wrong and shouldn’t be happening.
What about, as Conservative councillors have argued, saving the money by simply refurbishing the current Sovereign Centre instead of replacing it?
“This shows a lack of understanding of the issue. It would be done on the cheap with a not as long life expectancy.
“It would have to close for a long time and the town would have no swimming pool.
“The centre is subsidised by £350,000 a year from the council’s revenue budget.
“The new pool will have new facilities, with £200,000 for the skate park next to the pool.
“Councillor Colin Belsey said why don’t we borrow more money, when earlier in the evening [at the council meeting on Wednesday, February 22] Councillor Smart and Councillor Penny di Cara said they were worried about the council’s borrowing.
“They didn’t offer a single amendment to the budget. They haven’t come up with an alternative to the downs sale.
“I’m not pretending either option is preferable but it’s what we have to face as a council.
What if in the future, when you are no longer council leader, the land is treated badly?
“I’d be out there protesting.”