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Society pledges public support for the National Park Authority

National Park Friends Group pledges support for Park Authority in controversial move.

At its meeting on 3 July the South Downs National Park Authority was promised the full and continuing support of its “Friends” organisation, the South Downs Society.

Addressing the meeting, the Society’s policy officer Steve Ankers, said “The Authority has taken a controversial step in seeking judicial review of the process by which Highways England identified its preferred option for the A27 Arundel bypass. This may not have gone down well with everyone but this Society unhesitatingly supports the Authority. Along with many other organisations, we campaigned for many years for a powerful, well-resourced body dedicated to conserving and enhancing the very special qualities of the South Downs and we are delighted to see it make this stand.” READ MORE…

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A27 Dual carriageway between Lewes and Polegate

Maria Caulfield MP, Chairman of the A27 Reference Group, has announced that a business case to dual the A27 is ready to go before Government Ministers.

The Friends of the South Downs have expressed their concerns about the proposal to put a motorway-style road in between Lewes and Polegate near Eastbourne as it will destroy the beautiful countryside and be visible from the South Downs and the South Downs National Park.

It will be a scar across the countryside whether you’re standing on Mount Caburn near Lewes or whether you are on Firle Beacon on the South Downs.

Spending an estimated £450 million, at more than £50M/mile is a huge amount of tax payers’ money to allow people to drive a bit faster over the 9 or 10 mile stretch of road. This stretch of road is often slow, due mainly to the single lane traffic. READ MORE…

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“A place to fly in peace”?

Concerned walkers have approached the Society on finding that their quiet walks through the Balsdean valley near Woodingdean have been disturbed by drones flying. The Society took up their complaints with the national park authority which has taken enforcement action. Despite this the activity has continued. The Society has written to the Sussex Express as follows:

It is for good reason that the Balsdean valley between Kingston, Woodingdean and Saltdean has been referred to as the “hidden” or “secret” valley. Those who follow the public footpaths to this special place discover a surprisingly tranquil haven, a rarity so close to centres of population in this precious part of the national park.

Until recently, that is. 
Visit www.hidden-valley.org — “a place to fly in peace” (we’re talking drones here) — and you will find that not everybody has the same ideas about tranquillity. The activities taking place do not have planning permission and those involved have been instructed by the national park authority to cease. The park planners would appreciate any first hand information from walkers, horse riders. cyclists and others who may have experienced the drones in order to take matters forward.

 

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Seven Sisters Country Park: South Downs Society’s plea for safeguarding

East Sussex County Council has carried out extensive public consultations on the future management of its rights of way and countryside sites, including the famous Seven Sisters Country Park. Decisions on their future are scheduled to be made by the Council at a meeting of its Cabinet at the end of June.  In the light of recent moves by both Eastbourne and Brighton and Hove Councils to sell off land in their ownership, the Society has written to each member of the East Sussex Cabinet urging them to guarantee “benign” ownership, ensuring the protection and improvement of the landscape, wildlife, cultural heritage and public enjoyment.

The text of our letter is as follows:

The Society recognises the achievement of the County Council over the years in acquiring and maintaining land for the purposes of countryside recreation over and above its statutory duties with regard to rights of way. We also fully recognise the financial pressures facing the authority which render increasingly difficult the achievement of the highest standards which you would wish to meet.
In the circumstances we have responded positively to your consultation on options for future management and we await with great interest the report due to be considered at your June meeting. As set out in our written response to the consultation, the Society would urge the County Council to:
1. Ensure that the rights of way function is adequately resourced in terms of staff and finance to meet not only its statutory obligations but also the reasonable expectations of its users and other stakeholders
2. Either deploy sufficient resources on a continuing basis on the management of its countryside estate or agree to dispose of its assets to one or more benign owners committed to maintaining and enhancing their landscape, wildlife, cultural heritage and quiet enjoyment. In our response we made particular positive reference to the National Park Authority and National Trust as potential new owners.
The Society, which owes its origins to the benevolent and protective acquisition of coastal downland close to Seven Sisters Country Park, looks forward with great interest to your deliberations and offers its continuing support towards the achievement of the national park objectives of conservation, understanding and enjoyment.
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Eastbourne ends downland sell-off!

The Society has campaigned alongside local residents and other environmental groups against Eastbourne Borough Council’s plans to sell off the bulk of its landholding in the national park. While the planning powers of the National Park Authority would have remained in place, and rights of way would have been protected, there is no substitute for benign ownership if landscape, wildlife, recreation and cultural heritage are to be conserved and enhanced, so there is much to celebrate in the recent decision of the Borough Council to stop the sale. The Society has continually offered to collaborate with the council and others to realise the potential of the landholding and looks forward to engaging in that process.

The South Downs Network of environmental groups active across the national park — of which the Society is an active member and secretariat — has also offered its expertise. Below is the text of the Network’s letter to Eastbourne:

 

14th March 2017

Councillor Tutt       Leader, Eastbourne Borough Council

Dear Councillor Tutt

Following our letter to you (30th January 2017) this is a positive follow-up to thank you for the bold decision you have taken to stop the sale of the Eastbourne downland estate farms. Our network of 40 organisations with environmental interests in the South Downs National Park is relieved that you have come to this conclusion, influenced by the overwhelming feelings of your Eastbourne residents in the recent poll.

We understand the financial difficulties and pressure to deliver public services that you are under, and recognise that this has no easy solutions. However, we strongly believed that selling the downland asset was not the right answer. Now you have stopped the sales you will be looking forward to how best to manage the downland estate and we re-emphasise the offer we made in our previous letter: “we will be more than happy to work with you, in partnership, to maximise the benefits from public land ownership”.

A strong partnership with the South Downs National Park Authority, Water Company, key organisations and local interests can be galvanised here. The estate is an invaluable public asset for the people of Eastbourne, for the local area and visitors from further afield. Your tenant farmers are making a valuable contribution. Their sensitive land management in food-growing helps deliver clean drinking water, wildlife and natural capital, along with its value for cultural heritage, public access, recreation and tourism and increasing the sustainability of the local economy in the face of climate change. With ownership and management in your control, as the publicly-accountable local authority for Eastbourne, much can be achieved.

The range of ecosystem services that the Eastbourne downland generates offers great opportunity, particularly if the UK’s post-Brexit farming policy results in more financial support for the maintenance of such services. Furthermore, your Downland Management Plan provides a useful base to affirm a renewed vision to develop a more comprehensive action plan for the Downs in harmony with local people while also recognising the national significance of this iconic landscape.

Yours sincerely

Dr Tony Whitbread, Chairman, South Downs Network

Cc Mr R Cottrill, Chief Executive, Eastbourne Borough Council

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Please Don’t Sell the Eastbourne Downs

As part of the Society’s continuing campaign alongside local residents and other environmental organisations to keep the downs in benign ownership, we have — as a member of the South Downs Network of around 40 organisations — again written to the leader of Eastbourne Borough Council urging the authority to call a halt to its plans to sell four farms in a key part of the national park behind Beachy Head. The Society, from January 2017, acts as secretary to the Network.

 

Dear Councillor Tutt                                                                                            30 January 2017

Leader, Eastbourne Borough Council

PLEASE DON’T SELL THE EASTBOURNE DOWNS

We, the South Downs Network of organisations with an environmental interest in the national park, urge you to stop the proposed sale of the four farms, comprising three-quarters of the Eastbourne downland estate.

This land is an invaluable public asset for the people of Eastbourne, for the local area and visitors from further afield. It has great value for its rich natural capital, its biodiversity and cultural heritage, to public amenity and the town’s drinking water supply. It is vital that ownership and management rest with the Borough Council, as the democratic, publicly-accountable local authority for Eastbourne, to continue its great work in conserving and enhancing the land and complying with the words and spirit of the 1926 Eastbourne Corporation Act.

Under your careful ownership there is a synergy of the tenant farmers’ sheep grazing; people wandering from “honeypot” sites to the more tranquil downland and chalk grassland restoration enabled by “joining up” different compartments. This synergy would fail if the estate was broken up. We hear assurances that you have given about the land being in the National Park, rights of way being protected and covenants on the land. However, from practical experience across the South Downs this will not safeguard the Eastbourne Downs. No guarantees can be given that current, relatively benign farming practices will continue. Recent examples show how insecure these apparent protections are. Twyford Down in Hampshire was a legally protected Site of Special Scientific Interest and Scheduled Ancient Monument– destroyed. Covenants on Brighton Marina to prevent building higher than the cliffs – tested and torn up in the Court of Appeal. St Mary’s Farm, sold by Brighton Council and subsequently to an investment bank, which, to gain a good return on its investment, rented it to an intensive arable farmer who ploughed up the grassland and to a commercial shoot that bulldozed out copse-centres for game rearing.

We strongly recommend that the Council re-thinks its policy, looks more closely at the range of ecosystem services that the Eastbourne Downland generates and sets out a renewed vision for its Downs in harmony with its people. This should respect the fact that the land is held in trust by the Council on behalf of the people of Eastbourne.

If you take this approach we will be more than happy to work with you, in partnership, to maximise the benefits from public land ownership; you can be assured that this would be a most popular move, applauded by the people of Eastbourne.

I am copying this letter to Caroline Ansell MP, to Councillor Gill Mattock and to selected media.

 

Dr Tony Whitbread

Chair, South Downs Network

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“Fight for it or lose it!”

The Society, in collaboration with local residents and other organisations, continues to campaign against the plans of local councils to dispose of their landholdings in the national park. Here is a press release that we issued jointly with CPRE at the end of January:

 

‘Fight for it or lose it,’

warn campaigners over Downland sale


Countryside campaigners have joined forces to issue an urgent appeal calling for local people to join the battle to save thousands of acres of Downland before it is ‘too late’.

 The Sussex branch of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE Sussex) and The South Downs Society are hoping a new wave of ‘people power’ could force Eastbourne Borough Council to rethink its plans to sell-off the land, which was originally bought for the people of Eastbourne in 1926.

“We think it is unacceptable that the council is now looking to auction this land off to the highest bidder for short-term economic gain,” says CPRE Director, Kia Trainor. “The council must halt and reconsider this plan and we are hoping that a strong message from the people of Sussex will make them do so.”

“This land includes of some of Sussex’s most iconic landscapes, and was acquired for the people of Eastbourne ‘in perpetuity’ in order to ensure that it was protected ‘for the enjoyment of all.’”

Many local residents are still unaware of the Council’s intention to sell the land which is made up of four farms in the South Downs National Park. The Eastbourne Downland Estate extends to 4,200 acres – much of which is internationally important due to its unique biodiversity and rare wildlife habitats.

“This policy on the part of the Borough Council to put at risk all the environmental and recreation gains made since the downland was bought has united not only Eastbourne residents but all those with a love of the South Downs,” says Steve Ankers, Policy Officer for the South Downs Society. “This would be a betrayal of the far-sighted vision shown by the Council nearly a century ago.”

Eastbourne Borough Council says that if it is sold the land would still be protected by the planning restrictions imposed by the National Park Authority and by legislation covering its public rights of way. However, the campaigners say this won’t go far enough and have warned that landscape enhancement, archaeology and visitor access will all be in jeopardy.

“For Eastbourne, it is a short-term and rather desperate ‘family silver’ sale, seeking to rob downland Peter to pay for urban regeneration Paul,” says Phil Belden, former Director of Operations at the South Downs National Park.

“Public ownership provides the opportunity to influence the way our land is managed. As constituents we can engage with our councillors/officers to achieve commendable conservation and access gains. Unless there is a benign private owner, there can be no assurances.”

 

 

 

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Lewes farmland in the national park lost to housing

The Society has issued the following press release on 30 March:

 

Lewes farmland in the national park to be lost for housing

 Despite the best efforts of local environmental groups and concerned residents, a government appointed planning inspector has ruled that quality agricultural land at Old Malling Farm in the Ouse valley in Lewes can be developed for housing.

Says the policy officer for the South Downs Society, Steve Ankers, “This is a real kick in the stomach. Initially neither the South Downs National Park Authority nor Lewes District Council wanted to see the Old Malling Farm site developed but the planning inspector firstly told them that this site should be considered, then, after listening to our arguments decided that he’d been right all along! And this despite a report that he requested from Lewes District and the Park Authority that showed sufficient land was already in the planning pipeline to meet short term housing needs.”

After considering evidence at a reopened public inquiry last December, in his report dated 22 March the inspector appointed to examine the “Lewes District Local Plan Joint Core Strategy” has concluded that:

‘The need to deliver additional housing over the plan period, particularly to help meet local needs in Lewes, notably for affordable housing, has led the Councils to allocate an additional strategic site. A 10 hectare greenfield site at Old Malling Farm on the northern edge of the town, between the Malling estate to the east, the Malling Deanery Conservation Area to the south and the River Ouse, railway and Landport estate to the west, has accordingly been selected. Although it is mainly of grade 2 agricultural land quality, with some ecological and potential archaeological interest, the location is a sustainable one with reasonably good access and proximity to the town centre. Moreover, its development would not materially extend the built up area of the settlement further into open countryside than the existing housing to the east and west.’

 Organisations like the South Downs Society and Friends of Lewes are fully aware that, with the town firmly embedded in the national park, its pressing need for new houses must be met partly within the park boundaries but believe that this is best done by recycling previously developed “brownfield” sites.

Says chairman of the Friends of Lewes, Robert Cheesman, “This is a hugely disappointing decision. We must make sure that it doesn’t set a very dangerous precedent for building on other open countryside in the national park. Both the Friends of Lewes and the South Downs Society will carefully consider any detailed plans put forward for Old Malling Farm to ensure that the design is appropriate and there are adequate measures to landscape the development in what is a prominent position in the National Park. We won’t be letting up in our efforts!”

 

 

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Eastbourne Downland sell-off

The Society has issued the following press release about Eastbourne Borough Council’s plans to sell off most of its landholding in the South Downs National Park:

 

Tarnishing the Family Silver

News that Eastbourne Borough Council plans to sell off its landholding on the South Downs has been greeted with great concern by national park “Friends group”, the South Downs Society.

 Says the Society’s policy officer, Steve Ankers, “This is worrying news. This Society came into being when public spirited citizens banded together to acquire land on the Seven Sisters to keep it safe from development and open for public enjoyment. Other councils along the Sussex coast faced with budget pressures have thought about selling off their downland assets like this but have been persuaded to reach agreement with local communities on safeguarding access, landscape and wildlife. There are also national and regional bodies who could be involved in helping to protect this land. Eastbourne needs to think again.”

 Eastbourne Council has issued statements defending the move, claiming that the land will remain protected from development by being in the national park and being crossed by public rights of way that won’t be extinguished, and that the cash raised can be ploughed back into providing services for the people of the town.

But the South Downs Society is unimpressed. Says Steve Ankers, “Of course planning powers and the laws protecting footpaths are important – this Society has been working in this framework for over 90 years! But, with ownership gone, what are the prospects for meeting the national park’s statutory purposes of conserving and improving the landscape, public access beyond the linear paths, enhancing the wildlife habitat, interpreting the archaeology and providing for visitor understanding and enjoyment? Once ownership is forfeited, that’s also the annual income to the council gone too: once you’ve sold off the family silver to help meet this year’s budget problem, what’s left next time round?”

 

 

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National park society gives cautious welcome to new park plan

The text of the Society’s submitted comments on the “South Downs Local Plan: Preferred Options” is already on our website, but for information, here is the text of our press release issued today:

 

The South Downs Society, the Friends group for the national park, has submitted a 5,000 word set of comments on the draft plan for the national park drawn up by the South Downs National Park Authority in a consultation which ran until the end of October.

The Society has participated regularly during the preparation of the plan and has not found too many major surprises amongst the 59 draft policies and sites proposed for development.

Said Robert Cheesman, chairman of the Society, “We welcome the way the plan places its emphasis on the national park purposes of conservation and enjoyment taking precedence over development – while recognising the need for appropriate levels of new “affordable” housing on brownfield sites, suitably located and designed.  We have added our own commentary and suggestions for new and amended policies which would help to protect the park’s special qualities.”

The Society has challenged some of the housing target figures in the plan and has repeated its strong objections to the use of farmland at Old Malling Farm on the outskirts of Lewes for a new housing estate.

The plan will, once it has gone through its various stages of consultation and examination, become a key document in conserving and enhancing the landscape and townscapes of the park and guiding development. It is anticipated that the plan will be formally adopted around June 2017.