Sunday 29 November 2009

Stop Cissbury Sell Off - all smoke and mirrors from Worthing Council

Stop Cissbury Sell Off. November 27th 2009

Contact: David Bangs, T: 01273 620 815, Trevor Hodgson, T: 01903 602 200,, Chris Hare, T: 01903 200 648,

Worthing’s Downland
When is a sale not a sale ?

We would like very much to offer three cheers to Worthing Council leaders’ proposal to Worthing Cabinet to withdraw the Council’s Cissbury downland from the market[i].
Sadly, we cannot.
Indeed, the proposal to replace the sale of the Cissbury Downland with ‘long term leases’ looks like an attempt to dispose of the substance of their ownership of this Downland, under cover of the near-worthless retention of the legal freehold.

Pulling the wool over Worthing peoples’ eyes.
The council will thus receive the credit for dropping an unpopular sale, but still gain the capital receipts from the sale of the leases. Worthing people will gain little or nothing in terms of the management and improvement of their downland.
In effect, this proposal revives the discredited idea that covenants will adequately protect the future of our downland, by using the slightly different legal form contained within a long-term leasehold agreement.

It is telling, also, that the idea of the sale of the downland through long term lease has its origin in external advice from a ‘prominent developer’[ii].

Councillors should bear in mind that it was the Council’s past history of distance management of their farmed downland on long term agricultural tenancies that has encouraged the Council to forget the original purposes of their ownership in the first place.

‘Long term leases’ are not a solution. Thus: -
- The National Trust own about 450 acres of downland at Beeding Hill on ‘long term leases’. That form of ownership means nothing. They have no management control over any part of the resource except the tatty little fly-tipped car park. The rest of the downland has been bulldozed and relentlessly ploughed. The public have lost all rights of access, and all the archaeology and the ancient flowery pastures have been destroyed.
- Adur Council own large amounts of farmland north of Shoreham and Southwick, which is let on long term leases, and over which the Council has no management control. That downland has been stripped of almost all of its wildlife interest, its archaeology, and its public access.
- Brighton City Council own the freeholds of both Benfield Valley and the Devils Dyke Golf Course, yet they are let on long term leases. In the case of Benfield these leases have been owned recently by several developers and have not prevented several damaging development proposals for parts of the Benfield Valley land. In both cases the leases give the Council zero management control over these downland areas.
We urge the Council to develop democratically accountable forms of management for all its downland, which optimise their control over the land and their ability to put in place all the enhancements that would benefit Worthing people. These structures may well include carefully drawn up Agricultural Business Tenancies, but they would not include any ‘long term leases’ or ‘long term’ tenancies.
Particularly, the Council should write a Management Plan for their owned downland and consult with Worthing people and other interested bodies on the contents of that plan.
Such a Worthing Downland Estate Management Plan should include:
- Free and open access over all the council owned downland, as was always envisaged when the Borough purchased it, and as is strongly needed on this urban fringe Downland within the new National Park. All of Mount Carvey already has such access, and Tenants Hill had it in the past, and needs to be returned to that free and open condition.
- Management of all the farmland as permanent pasture, with the removal of most of the internal fencing at Tenant Hill and some at Mount Carvey.
- A project of enhancement of the quality of this permanent pasture, so as to re-create the flowery, species-ri ch pastures which were so central to the place identity of the South Downs in earlier generations.
- This project of enhancement to be done with the close partnership of Worthing’s neighbours, the National Trust, the new National Park Authority, Natural England, and local experts.
Eastbourne Council have undertaken just such an enhancement project over the past 15 years with excellent results for all visitors to their downland at Beachy Head and on the heights above the town, for wildlife, and for the restoration of a badly damaged down landscape.
With such a plan Worthing, too, can make its Cissbury Downland an iconic landscape for the new National Park.
Please reject any return to the bad old days of distant Council management and loss of all memory of the public values for which our downland was first bought.

[i] (Worthing Borough Council Press Release, 26th November 2009, and WBC Cabinet Meeting Agenda item 9, December 3rd 2009).

[ii] (Agenda Item 9, para. 3.2, Report to Cabinet: 3rd December 2009).

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