A REVIEW into publicly owned downland has been a missed opportunity, environmental campaigners have warned.

Sussex Wildlife Trust’s conservation policy advisor Phil Belden has claimed it will be “business as usual” with Brighton and Hove City Council too reliant on the advice of commercial property agents in managing its rural assets rather than environmental campaigners.

Fellow environmental campaigner Dave Bangs said ecological management had taken a “step back 20 years” while Green councillor Ollie Sykes said the final report only viewed the downland estate as a financial asset.

The policy review into how the council manages and disposes of its land portfolio was established in February after a huge public campaign halted the sale of two rural sites, Poynings and Plumpton Hill, to meet the costs of Stanmer Park restoration.

Concerns have been raised that the sale of the lands is only suspended and could be revisited at a later time.

During the review property agents Savills warned selling the freehold limited the control the authority had over land use and environmental protection with restrictive covenants offering limited protection.

The panel was also told the authority had limited control over how tenants used the land under the Agricultural Holdings Acts, the terms under which 60 per cent of the council’s rural tenancies are let.

Mr Belden told the review public ownership of freeholds was the strongest protection land could have and that the economic value of land was wider than just farm rents and capital land value.

He warned no covenant was watertight and could be circumvented by planning legislation while ensuring sites were given proper environmental protection was dependent on the council having adequate resources.

He said: “I think it will be business as usual and we will have the same fight on our hands the next time.

“The meeting was held in private so we did not know what other people were saying and so couldn’t contradict them.

“I think they were just bamboozled and starstruck by the evidence of [property agents] Savills and Cluttons.

“There are environmental experts willing to give their expertise and we’re not asking for big consultancy fees, we would be volunteering our help.”

Councillor Sykes said: “I do not feel the report fully reflects the richness of experience we had as panel. I’m a bit unhappy with what we have produced, the balance of information is really weighted to view the downland estate purely as a financial asset.”