Earlier today, following our amendment that was submitted to Policy and Resources Committee, we have successfully called for a halt to the fast-moving sales of parcels of land in the Downland Estate. We put forward both a letter, setting out clearly why the Downland must be protected, but also two concrete proposals which, supported by the Conservatives, demand that the council look into alternative options to these sales and suspends the disposal process as it stands. (Amendment here, you can also read our letter)
We are relieved and energised that our requests to put the brakes on the sales have been accepted by all. We have fought hard to stop these plans despite how far ahead they were in the process. For now, this means that the plans to dispose of two parcels of land of the Downland Estate totalling more than 91.5 acres will not go ahead. But a halt is not enough. What is a fact now is that momentum and support is still needed to ensure we can finish what we have started and reverse the sales altogether.
Like many residents of Brighton and Hove and the surrounding area, we consider the Downland to be a special place that should be treated differently to other council ‘assets.’ It is a stunning area, a habitat for wildlife to flourish and for us to experience the local natural environment. It’s beautiful to look at, and an amazing part of our local environment both for flora and fauna, but it also secretly sustains us in more ways than we realise. Underneath our toes, the Downland also encompasses the ‘chalk aquifer’; – nothing short of a giant natural ‘sponge’ that forms a reservoir providing all the natural drinking water for Brighton and Hove. It is no surprise then that previous civic leaders had the foresight to purchase the Downland and protect it.
Questions have therefore been rightfully asked about how these sales were made possible in the first place. We recognise that Councillors from all our local political parties sat on the committees that oversaw the original disposal plans and had the opportunity then to oppose them. In the original committees of July 2014 and Feb 2016, where these sales were agreed, the land was identified, not as part of the ‘Downland Estate’ but as a ‘non-core asset’ available for disposal to fund the Stanmer Park restoration and development.
Now we know that the details of the programme of land disposals would have benefitted from greater scrutiny. The Green group of Councillors have always valued the strength and importance of learning how to do things differently and to adapt when new information comes to light. As soon as details about the true nature of these sales became clear, we moved swiftly to act. Most importantly, we have also demanded significant changes to council policy and procedure that will ensure Downland is never again identified as an area suitable for sale.
We will be working with Councillors across all parties to increase protection of our estate which not only provides our water but is also unique for its biodiversity, heritage and landscape. We appreciate the irony that it is the Conservatives who have seconded our proposals, knowing as we do that it is the cuts and austerity policies of their colleagues in central government that force local councils to consider such drastic measures as selling the natural environment. Yet working together is essential if we are to reverse the sales. We believe protecting the natural environment is a task for all of us.
No matter the value, elected Councillors should always be clearly notified of any proposals to sell the Downland. That’s because the ‘value’ of the Downland is about so much more than ‘money.’ You cannot put a price on nature.
Here is our opportunity to implement positive changes to council policy. I also hope we will lead the way to a change in the ‘culture’ in local government that all too quickly ignores the bounty of our natural environment.