In its ‘answers’ about the downland farms [Herald, January 20] the council claims that the closed farmland is quite different from the ‘open downland’ to which the public have access, and consequently its sale will not matter. This is deceitful because it is the council that has chosen which land is open and which is closed, and this has changed over time.
When the council bought the downs in the 1920s the great majority of the land was wildflower-rich grassland, open for the public to roam wherever they pleased. As was stated at the time: ‘It is the deliberate intention of the Corporation to secure the public the free and open use of the downs in perpetuity.’ But during the 1950s the council lost sight of this aim and decided to maximise farm rents by promoting intensive agriculture. So it closed three quarters of its downland to the public, fenced it in and ploughed it up. Only the marginal land that was too steep to plough, on the cliff tops and scarp, was left open and accessible.
But all the downland is in public ownership, so the council could restore public access whenever it chooses. It did so in the 1990s, when it took a substantial area around Beachy Head out of arable farming, seeded it with wildflowers and transferred it to the open downland. And in the 2000s a large tract of grazing land at Butts Brow and Coombe Hill was declared ‘access land’ where the public have the legal right to roam everywhere, not just on a few statutory footpaths.
So the distinction between open downland and the farms is completely misleading, because the council has and can re-open more land to the public if only it has the will. As freeholder, it could work with its tenant farmers to allow viable agriculture to continue, but encourage more arable land to be converted to pasture for the benefit of the downland’s landscape and increased public access.
It is utterly perverse of the council to sell the downland now that it has become a National Park, which was established to enhance the natural beauty and public enjoyment of the South Downs. Eastbourne Borough Council should be co-operating with the Park Authority to achieve these aims, not selling off the land on the false claim that it can never be of any benefit to the public.
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