The ‘Don’t Urbanise the Downs’ campaign was set up in March 2021. It aims to fight proposals by Eton College to create a 3,250-house new town at East Chiltington in East Sussex, on 465 acres of idyllic countryside and active farmland owned by the school.
Our support base has grown to some 6,000 people from across Sussex and beyond and our numbers are still increasing daily. For those who live in the area, hundreds of our signs declaring ‘NO ETON NEW TOWN’ act as a daily reminder that this tiny hamlet in an isolated and tranquil corner of Sussex is facing the prospect of wholesale destruction.
With no existing infrastructure in this area of unspoilt countryside, most of which is currently run as a productive farm, our campaign argues it makes no sense to build a town here, will not solve housing issues in the area and serves only to give Eton College an estimated £300mn profit on the investment it made when it bought the land in 1999.
An unsuitable site for a new town
The Eton site lies around seven miles from the county town of Lewes, next to the South Downs National Park and between the villages of Plumpton Green and South Chailey – which risk losing their identity to become the new town’s suburbs. There are no roads to speak of: only single-track lanes without pavements. No street lights, no mains sewerage or gas – just one pub, a church and under 500 residents.
Addressing this lack of access and infrastructure would require expensive road building, causing destruction and devastation to the rural environment and adding to the congestion in already overloaded villages. To deliver a new town on this site contravenes local and national policy on planning, climate change, environmental protection and biodiversity.
Our campaign is supported by people across Sussex and beyond, in part because many thousands each year walk, ride or cycle on the network of lanes, bridleways and footpaths that cross the Eton farmland and surrounding countryside. They cherish the sights and sounds of the nature it supports: ancient trees and hedgerows, at least eight species of bats, rare sea trout which spawn in the Bevern stream and other native flora and fauna which we are in danger of losing through habitat destruction. Like me, they find the thought of its obliteration totally abhorrent. Most especially as it is driven by greed and not by need.
How did we get to this point?
Although there is a need for affordable homes for local people, research shows building houses on remote greenfield locations doesn’t make the houses any more affordable. A new town on pristine countryside will, like most other developments in the South East, simply end up as car-dependent executive housing with a token amount of ‘affordable’ homes which few on a low income can aspire to buy.
Like many other councils across the country, Lewes District Council (LDC) has been charged by central government to almost double the annual housebuilding targets it had put into its local plan. However, the government stipulation to come up with a new local plan to reflect them is based on outdated 2016 population growth projections from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). More recent ONS figures from both 2018 and 2020 show a significant decline in population growth – so much so, that the original annual housebuilding targets set by LDC in its previous local plan were just about right all along!
Almost two years ago, LDC asked for potential development sites in the district to be put forward to help it achieve the new annual housebuilding targets. In the mix of responses from landowners, Eton College, through its land promoters Welbeck Land, proposed the construction of a new town on its land.
What happens next?
After a public consultation in summer 2021 – to which thousands responded to say no to the new town (only 12 out of almost 3,000 were for it) – the council decided to appoint external consultants to evaluate the proposals for the Eton site and for two others in the district, in nearby Cooksbridge and in Ringmer. We at Don’t Urbanise the Downs have made a submission against the proposed new town development and expect to be consulted as part of the evaluation, but as yet, have no knowledge of a likely end date for this process. So, for the immediate future, we are in limbo.
Our goal remains the same and we are working behind the scenes to achieve it – to keep the Eton new town out of LDC’s new local plan and to kick it into touch for good. If we really care about tackling climate change, sourcing our food locally and protecting our wild spaces, we simply can’t let Eton get away with this.
You can sign up to join the campaign at http://www.donturbanisethedowns.com/
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