THE controversial sale of two key downland sites has been dropped in the face of fierce public opposition.

Brighton and Hove City Council has agreed not to sell-off the sites at Poynings and Plumpton after campaigners accused the authority of selling off the crown jewels of their downland estate.

The land sales were designed to help fund the council's contribution towards the £5.8 million restoration of Stanmer Park.

A special review panel established into the sales has now reported that Stanmer's fundraising strategy is currently anticipated to over achieve its target, allowing the plans to now continue without the need to sell the two sites.

The halted sell-off is the second good news for campaigners this month after Eastbourne decided against its plans to sell off downland farms for up to £30 million.

A Brighton and Hove City Council spokeswoman said: "After reviewing the situation, a cross party Policy Review Panel has taken the view that the sites at Poynings and Plumpton should not be sold at this time.

“The panel’s recommendation was made after councillors looked at the council’s approach to the downland asset management policy and heard evidence from expert witnesses.

"The sale of the sites was due to generate an estimated £360,000 and, if approved at committee, would result in a shortfall of the projected budget.

“The cross party working panel will meet for two further meetings to complete their review of the city's Urban and Rural Asset Management Policy.

"The panel’s work includes hearing further evidence from local stakeholders and experts before reporting back with all their recommendations to May’s policy, resources and growth committee where the final decisions will be made.” 

Conservative group leader Geoffrey Theobald said: “I am pleased that the administration has now listened to residents and interested parties on this matter.

"The Conservative Group looked into this issue thoroughly, listening to and discussing the proposals with a number of bodies who wanted to see this downland remain under council ownership.

"We therefore welcome the decision of the panel.”

Green Councillor Ollie Sykes, who sat on the cross party policy review panel said: “Greens welcome the council’s announcement that finally ends the sale of two parts of our Downland estate and have worked hard for this decision.

"Observers might wonder what the fuss was about and why people are concerned about selling agricultural land outside our city boundaries, when capital receipts are required for various projects around the city. 

“One part of the answer to this question lies in the fate of land on the Devil’s Dyke estate sold recently by our council, on which ancient woodland trees have been felled in the past few weeks. 

“A number of commentators, including the CEO of South Downs National Park Authority, have stated that public ownership is the best protection for precious rural landholdings.

"At the root of public ownership lies democratic oversight. Sale, lease, change of use of land in public ownership is subject to scrutiny by members of the public and by elected representatives.

"Land in private ownership is not, even if it is protected by national designations for biodiversity, heritage, landscape, water provision and public rights of way.

"My big fear through this process was that if these parcels of land were sold, the enforcement of designations protecting their status and social value would pass to a suite of chronically under-resourced public sector bodies whose environmental protection mandate continues to be diluted by national government.

"Also some of the existing protections are only in place because of European legislation, which may soon become irrelevant.

“The South Downs is an iconic landscape and habitat of huge importance to our city and nationally. Its great news that we’re not going to sell it off bit by bit.”

Keith Taylor, Green MEP, former city councillor and vice-chairman of the Local Government Association, said: “This welcome climbdown is great news for Green campaigners and everybody involved in the Keep our Downlands Public campaign in Brighton and Hove.

"The controversial plan to sell off the council’s Poynings and Plumpton landholdings in the South Downs inspired an organised, passionate and energetic campaign to stop the sales; their efforts must be commended.

"The deep connection the people of Brighton and Hove and surrounding areas have to this landscape was always going to be impossible to ignore.
“Public ownership is essential to upholding the aims of the national park – to conserve and enhance natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage and promote opportunities for understanding and enjoyment by the public.”