People power saves our Downs in Eastbourne

The enormous effort of a group of local people to save part of the South Downs in the Eastbourne area shows how grassroots people power can bring about change.

Proposals to sell off land in the South Downs National Park have been abandoned by the local council following a massive public outcry.

It’s a fantastic win for the residents of Eastbourne – and couldn't have been done without your support.

A few months ago Eastbourne Friends of the Earth found out that their council was planning to sell off 4 farms in the South Downs National Park.

So they got together with other local groups and Eastbourne residents to fight the decision under the banner of “Keep Our Downs Public”.

The council was forced to change its mind and halt the sales.

Sally Boys
Sally Boys from Eastbourne Friends of the Earth © Catherine Tonge

This is a great result for the town. We hope that this result in Eastbourne reverberates across the country and other local authorities realise that people need and want their open spaces and wildlife havens

Sally Boys, Eastbourne Friends of the Earth

This land had been bought with public money in the 1920s for the council to look after in perpetuity for local people.

Eastbourne council, like many others, is having to look for alternative sources of income in the harsh reality of austerity.

It thought selling off these farms would be a good way to raise money.

But people were incensed about the plan to sell off the land. It’s like selling the family silver – you can only do it once.

Concern for Eastbourne's water supply

Despite being in a National Park, many changes of use to land and farm buildings could have gone ahead without planning permission if the land was no longer under public control.

There was also a concern that Eastbourne’s water supply could be at risk from more intensive farming using pesticides.

Eastbourne Friends of the Earth set up an online petition opposing the sales, and got more signatures by setting up stalls in the town centre. In total over 10,000 people signed.

The campaigners also encouraged Eastbourne residents to pressure councillors to reverse their decision.

A rally in December 2016 on Beachy Head beside the threatened land attracted 200 people.

Protests outside council meetings followed and then hundreds marched through town showing the amount of local concern about this issue.

Downland farm
The Downland landscape © Catherine Tonge

Brenda Pollack, Friends of the Earth South East Campaigner, worked with the group to get local and national media coverage and promote the protests. 

We realise councils are facing really difficult decisions due to severe financial cuts – but these chalk downs are unique and should never have been considered for sale

Brenda Pollack, Friends of the Earth South East Campaigner

The Liberal Democrats control Eastbourne council but the opposition parties, Conservative, Labour and Green all came out against the sales.

When 2 members of the Liberal Democrats group publicly said they didn’t want to proceed with the sales things started shifting.

A public vote to protect the Downs

After many protested about the lack of public engagement in the decision, the council decided to hold a vote on the sales.

Even though campaigners felt the vote was unfair they pulled out all the stops to get as many voting slips in as possible.

The votes showed that people wanted the council to retain the farms and the council leader announced on 6 March that it would no longer be selling the land.

This is a great result for the campaign and a great result for nature.

Sign up for your Friends of the Earth Nature Kit

Demonstrators in Eastbourne