TWO countryside action groups are demanding controversial plans to sell off parts of the South Downs are dropped.

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.

The council says this will, in turn, pay for new projects in the town such as the redevelopment of the Devonshire Park complex and reinvesting in the downland,

Now the South Downs Society and the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) - both active in the national park - have written to Councillor Tutt strongly urging him to take a step back and take time to reconsider.

The land in question was acquired following a major public subscription and came into the ownership of the borough in 1926 for the benefit of the people of Eastbourne.

It needed a new act of parliament to make the purchase possible.

In that same decade, both of these campaigning organisations came into being at a time when the future of the open Downland was under great threat from the possibility of being turned into giant housing estates.

Robert Cheesman, chairman of the South Downs Society and David Johnson, chairman of CPRE Sussex, wrote in the open letter: "Since that time we – the South Downs Society, CPRE and Eastbourne BC – have all worked hard to protect the Downs from development and to conserve and improve the landscape, wildlife habitats and opportunities for public access and enjoyment.

"The creation of the South Downs National Park has been one of our greatest achievements – but it doesn’t mean that the job is done.

"You (Eastbourne Borough Council) have said that the land to be sold off will be protected by the planning powers of the new National Park Authority and the legislation covering public rights of way.

"But this won’t go far enough. We don’t want to see the Park Authority having to fight off planning applications for housing and other developments.

"There is no substitute for ownership. Once outside the council’s control, the aims of enhancing the landscape and wildlife, of adding to the land currently available for open access, interpreting the archaeology and providing for visitor understanding and enjoyment – all these are part and parcel of being in a national park and all can be more easily achieved when you own the land."

Councillor Tutt said it is all out of proportion to say that the council is selling off its Downland.

He said:"It is no secret that we as a council have been looking at all of our assets, and this does include the four farms that we own on the Downland.

"It is common knowledge that when the LibDems came back to power in 2007 locally there was a huge backlog of maintenance needed to stop buildings literally crumbling.

"So having looked at the assets, we decided either to keep them, improve them or sell. The four farms we are talking about are not accessible to the public and are on a long-term lease.

"We have been exploring the possibility of offering the tenant the freehold of the farm. This would give them security and the council some money. Covenants exist so that they could only be farms anyway."