A CHARITY is demanding a rethink on controversial plans to sell off parts of the South Downs.

Eastbourne Borough Council leader David Tutt announced last month that four downland farms are to be sold by the council in a bid to boost cash reserves

Black Robin Farm, Bullock Down Farm, Cornish Farm and Chalk Farm will be sold in a deal which could bring millions of pounds in to the council coffers.

This could, in turn, pay for new projects in the town such as the redevelopment of the Devonshire Park complex and reinvesting in the downland, argues the council.

But the move has been met with great concern by National Park ‘Friends group’, the South Downs Society, which said it is very worrying.

Policy officer Steve Ankers said: "This society came into being when public spirited citizens banded together to acquire land on the Seven Sisters to keep it safe from development and open for public enjoyment.

"Other councils along the Sussex coast faced with budget pressures have thought about selling off their downland assets like this but have been persuaded to reach agreement with local communities on safeguarding access, landscape and wildlife.

"There are also national and regional bodies who could be involved in helping to protect this land. Eastbourne needs to think again.

"Eastbourne council has issued statements defending the move, claiming that the land will remain protected from development by being in the national park and being crossed by public rights of way that won’t be extinguished, and that the cash raised can be ploughed back into providing services for the people of the town.

"Of course planning powers and the laws protecting footpaths are important – this society has been working in this framework for over 90 years"

"But, with ownership gone, what are the prospects for meeting the national park’s statutory purposes of conserving and improving the landscape, public access beyond the linear paths, enhancing the wildlife habitat, interpreting the archaeology and providing for visitor understanding and enjoyment?

"Once ownership is forfeited, that’s also the annual income to the council gone too: once you’ve sold off the family silver to help meet this year’s budget problem, what’s left next time round?"

The council said the freeholds of the farms will initially be offered for sale to the current leaseholders who farm the land and other prominent landowners before being put on the open market.

The farmers can either buy the farms, stay on or leave but the council insists there are no plans to offer cash alternatives to vacate the properties.

The council denies the sale could lead to unwanted development as the downland it owns is part of the South Downs National Park, which is protected.