Brighton and Hove City Council owns a huge arc of downland around the city, a unique opportunity, in this time of unprecedented crisis, to to protect and preseve the landscape for nature and people. Now is the time to transform farming, enrich and restore ecosystems, protect water and soil for future generations, and create a haven for the people of Brighton and Hove.
To do this requires a holistic, coordinated and participatory management of the Estate. If the Downs is managed primarily as real estate by an external land agent, public values will continue to be overlooked. We advocate in-house management by a dedicated council Downland Estate Unit working effectively across departments with the meaningful involvement of local groups, experts, and with key organisations.
Preferentially offer new farmland lettings to community farming initiatives
The pandemic has brought a reckoning for how we feed ourselves and where we get our food. Farming within the Estate should work with nature with restorative principles to increase biodiversity, soil health and food quality so food production and environmental protection can go hand in hand.
Estate farm leases should preferentially be offered to regenerative and community farming initiatives that connect local producers and consumers (Food Partnerships and Community Supported Agriculture), along with chalk grassland ecosystem restoration. Leases become available on a regular basis. Such initiatives should be actively sought out and encouraged by an enlightened Estates management, both before and after granting a lease, and supported until they are robust and integrated into the wider Brighton community.
The public's baseline rights to the land should be guaranteed by making these properties statutory access land. Of course, this statutory access does not apply to land under growing crops, dangerous yards and service facilities, pens and holding areas.
Create a new in-house Estate management Unit and a Downland Estate Manager post
Such a manager would undertake the duties currently done by an external land agency and the Brighton and Hove City Council Estates Section, with Council staff directly accountable and a clear budget, buying in specialist advice if needed. Such a proposal was made by the Green Party in their first administration, but was then vetoed by the two opposition parties. We can hope that a new sense of the importance of the Downland Estate for addressing the global extinction event and climate emergency would allow more recognition of the relevance of this new arrangement.
Create a new Estate Management Advisory Panel
This should include both councillors and a range of representatives of the main interest groups in nature conservation and cultural heritage, recreation, education, and estate workers' representatives chosen by themselves. The Panel should be open and public, with power to initiate its own proposals and projects, and be given weight. It should be party to all tenancy arrangements and rent reviews, and should have the power to participate in choosing new tenants, with access to all core, non-personal financial information.
Create a new volunteer monitoring body for the Estate's resources
At present a large body of 'lookerers' assist the Brighton and Hove City Council’s grazier and rangers. A large number of conservation volunteers assist in local groups and rangers co-management of many high value nature and recreation sites. A number of skilled naturalists and other experts provide survey and monitoring information on individual sites and target species. The invaluable input of such volunteer workers should be coordinated and guided to create a regular and universal monitoring service across the Downland Estate to judge the success or failure of restorative initiatives and to suggest new initiatives to halt biodiversity decline and other key indicators.
Background and Evidence
If we look at the pattern of positive phases of change that have taken place on the Estate we can see that they have occurred almost entirely in response to community campaigns and external government initiatives, rather than being generated internally by the Council's management.
- In the 1980s political change in the Council brought in new proposals for chalk grassland restoration and organic farming.
- Lobbying brought the South Downs the first agri-environmental scheme (1987) one of only five areasn the country, introduced by Conservative minister Selwyn Gummer. South Downs conservationists succeeded in ensuring many early applications were submitted - leading to twice the take-up of Environmentally Sensitive Area agreements amongst Brighton Estate tenants than elsewhere on the Downs.
- New initiatives followed the 1995 success of local people, who generated an impressive campaign to successfully stop the sell-off of the entire Estate.
- A strong local campaign in support of a government proposal for a national right to roam (which became the 'CROW' Act of 2000) brought extra new areas of access land to the Estate, linking the town to the Down, from Stanmer Park up to Ditchling Beacon and the South Downs Way, later followed by the inclusion of nearly all of Patcham Court Farm.
- The final success of our long campaign for the National Park (2010), initiated following a strong push by local people for a local referendum, resulted in almost unanimous support for this hallowed status. In turn this brought new initiatives of co-operation between the Park Authority and other social landowners with the Council.
- The successful public campaign to halt further sell-off of parts of the Estate in 2015 gave rise to the creation of the Asset Management Board.
- In the case of the current Brighton Downs Whole Estate Plan, it was the South Downs National Park Authority who requested any organisations within the National Park who own land to produce a Whole Estate Plan to look at their land holdings holistically and decide the best approach to their future management given the statutory purposes of the National Park:
To conserve and enhance the natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage of the area
To promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of the National Park by the public