From The Argus –
More than 100 acres of downland held in public ownership for decades is being flogged off in the biggest sale of its kind for 20 years.
Campaigners are calling for a freeze on the 120 acre downland sell-off by Brighton and Hove City Council warning of damaging repercussions for the South Downs with a loss of public access and reduced conservation at important wildlife sites.
The sales are being arranged by the cash-strapped council, which has to find £18 million of cuts in the next financial year and £145 million by 2020.
The sale includes two sites of special scientific interest, part of a Scheduled Ancient Monument, a 50-year old nature reserve and two vital parts of the Devil’s Dyke setting according to opponents of the sale.
Council bosses said the land represented just one per cent of its 12,000 acre Downland estate, the equivalent of around 7,000 football pitches, with the sale of “less valuable heritage assets” in a bid to help fund the £5.8 million Stanmer Park restaurant project.
Campaigners are concerned that the sales could be just the beginning of a wider sell-off but council officials insisted no more are planned at present.
Land sales causing campaigners concern include three acres of The Junipers at the old Sussex Wildlife Trust Saddlescombe Nature Reserve sold to a private buyer for the “paltry sum of £35,000”.
Environmentalists say it is the sole remaining site for juniper in East Sussex, a well-known site for rare orchid species and bats, and “the single most important plot” in the whole Downland estate.
Devil’s Dyke Field has been sold to its tenant while the ten-acre Park Wall Farm at Falmer was snapped up for £175,000 though the council said it would be protected as grazing land.
Campaigners are also unhappy about the proposed sale of the 22-acre site The Racecourse outside Poynings, “a wonderful fossil site” that is the match of the better-known Bridport Cliffs in Dorset, and the loss from public ownership of Plumpton Hill Scarp though the council has said this will continue to be farmed by Plumpton College with public access fixed in perpetuity.
Environmental campaigner Dave Bangs said all the land should be kept in public ownership in perpetuity.
He added: “These sales open the door to privatisation of Brighton’s entire Downland Estate.
“Without democratic public accountability we must expect threats to public usage, neglect, damage to important wildlife habitat, inappropriate development, and more shooting and hunting.”
Chris Todd, of Brighton and Hove Friends of the Earth, said: “We have real concerns about this, most of the public is largely unaware of what is being done.
“I think people thought it was just a few minor old buildings or pieces of land of small value whereas they are proposing to sell hugely important wildlife sites.”
A city council spokeswoman said: “The sites chosen are non-core assets owned by the council, some of which are outside the city’s boundaries.
“Most of the Downland Estate is within the South Downs National Park and protected by the highest level of statutory protection possible.
“When the council sells land we take advice from specialist agents to make sure appropriate control mechanisms are put in place to protect the council and the city’s residents against future development or possible changes in use.”