The Eastbourne Downland Estate was acquired by Eastbourne Borough Council (EBC) in 1929 to protect Eastbourne’s water supply, control development, provide for public access, protect the wildlife and support farmers.
In 2016, the Downs came under threat as the cash-strapped council indicated that it would sell off some of the farms. The local community launched a tremendous campaign to stop this, but now the Downs face a new threat from the EBC, ironically as a result of £20m awarded to the council as part of the government’s levelling up programme.
Concerns expressed by National Parks Authority
The council’s plans include £11.8m for a proposal to transform the quiet Black Robin Farm, just off Beachy Head Road, into a maker’s studios, art gallery and education centre. All apparently worthy projects, but the South Downs National Parks Authority (SDNPA) – a government body which has to approve the EBC plans for Black Robin – has raised many ‘red flags‘ (Planning Application: SDNP/23/02662). Unlike EBC, the SDNPA is charged with protecting the Downs, landscape, heritage and its ecology, and concerns have been raised about whether this project is in the right place.
To be financially viable, the project needs to attract some 100,000 visitors each year. But the proposal includes only a small car park with fewer than 50 spaces and there is currently no commitment for additional buses. As well as the obvious concerns about where visitors will park, the SDNPA notes that 100,000 visitors coming by car could totally change the character of the area, adding significantly to pollution, damaging the delicate ecosystem, and having an impact on the nearby Sites of Special Scientific Interest (already at risk). Furthermore, there is a proposal to destroy some heritage farm buildings which are currently the home of a rare species of bats.
Vague commitments to mitigation and sustainable transport
Black Robin Farm is high up on the Downs, a 500 ft climb from the town. As no bus company has given a firm commitment to extend the current service, driving is the only feasible option for most people. Yet preserving the Downs means restricting access by car and limiting visitor access. Many tourist hot spots achieve this by having ‘park and ride’ schemes or by limiting numbers with day passes, both of which can generate income. However, the SDNPA has pointed out that the report only includes “vague references to discussions taking place and changes happening in the future in relation to sustainable travel.”
EBC also has plans for bore holes which may damage the chalk aquifer – Eastbourne’s drinking water supply. SDNPA has indicated that it is not satisfied that EBC has adequately assessed the risk to the Downs ecosystem or has any viable plans in place to mitigate against these risks. In their response to the EBC’s plans, SDNPA criticises EBC for “too much reliance … on a generic approach that mitigation can be secured…without a full understanding of the potential impacts.”
Missed opportunity to preserve and enhance the Downs
The levelling up monies provided a great opportunity for Eastbourne to propose an environmentally sound offering to tourists interested in the Downs. The chalk grasslands, which extend from Eastbourne to Winchester, are spectacularly diverse, with a huge range of wildflowers, including chalk fragrant orchids, burnt tip orchids, pyramidal orchids, common milkwort and common centaury (which aren’t common!), field scabious, small scabious, restharrow, meadow vetchling, squinancywort, perforate St. John’s wort, eyebright, black medick, hop trefoil and the Sussex flower: round-headed rampion.
It is also scientifically fascinating to think about how such a huge range of plants can be found within a small geographic area, together with rare butterflies and other invertebrates. The undulating landscape of great beauty gives pleasure to many visitors. But the human impact on this delicate ecology is only eliminated if people visit a range of sites. A new project, restoring a chalk grassland mosaic across the Downs, could have supported this eco-system and landscape alike, providing tourists and local people with a chance to engage with its further enhancement and restoration.
EBC has put forward a plan with an eye to maximising income from one of its assets on the Downs. It could have fashioned a more imaginative project which acknowledged that the preservation and enhancement of the Downs could be a source of income in the longer term. Or it could have risen to the challenge of providing an innovative public transport scheme which would enable people to access the Downs without a car. But the Black Robin Farm project may either turn out to be a ‘white elephant’, or, before approval is given, will require millions of pounds in measures to mitigate the damage it is likely to cause.