Brighton and Hove’s ruling Greens have decided that the council should manage its own countryside land holdings.
The decision has caused considerable controversy even though almost all of the downland estate is outside the Brighton and Hove City Council boundary.
The total size of the estate – 10,500 acres (4,400 hectares) – is about half the size of the city of Brighton and Hove.
The council’s tenant farmers are unhappy about the proposed change.
They currently deal with Smiths Gore, one of Britain’s leading rural estate management firms, which acts on behalf of the council.
The farmers are concerned, among other things, that the council will impose a Green agenda on the way that they farm and manage their land and livestock.
Councillor Gill Mitchell, leader of the Labour group on the council, was among the councillors to question the decision when opposition members asked the council’s cabinet to have a rethink.
After the Green cabinet agreed to stick to their guns, Councillor Mitchell said: “The Greens are ploughing on regardless and sowing the seeds of discontent among our tenant farmers.”
Opponents of the move said that it would cost the council more money at a time when there was enormous pressure to make savings and cut spending.
Councillor Geoffrey Theobald, leader of the opposition Conservative group, has now written to council chief executive John Barradell to complain.
In his letter today (Thursday 8 September) Councillor Theobald said: “If the city’s council tenants voted 100 per cent against changing the management of their homes then any sensible administration would surely not proceed.
“Our farmer tenants are evidently 100 per cent against the change.
“Why should one set of council tenants be treated differently from another?”
He said that the report prepared by council officials contained “a number of worrying uncertainties – indeed, I don’t think I have ever read one with so many.
“What is confirmed in a number of places is that, by bringing the service in-house, it will cost council taxpayers a lot more at a time when councils are supposed to be reducing expenditure.
“It does not state in the report from which budget the additional expenditure is coming or what reductions are to be made to finance the additional expenditure.
“Does this mean we could be making any current staff redundant to pay towards the extra costs of setting up an in-house service?”
Both Councillor Theobald and another senior Conservative councillor, Garry Peltzer Dunn, raised questions about the Greens’ plan to appoint an in-house surveyor.
The two Tories are surveyors by profession and pointed out a number of potential practical problems.
Councillor Theobald said: “It took a long time to fill the current seafront surveyor position and that was for an urban practice surveyor.
“During this period, some rent reviews were not kept up to date and we could have the same situation with our landed estates.
“Has potential lost revenue been factored in here?”
He added that the Greens were showing a “worrying lack of forethought and regard for council taxpayers’ money”.
Councillor Pete West, the Greens’ cabinet member for environment and sustainability, said: “We believe the change will help us build a stronger relationship with farmers and together explore opportunities to create new income.”
A council spokesman said that the change in management would enable the council and farmers to build on the “downland initiative”.
This involves working in partnership with countryside organisations, farmers and specialist contractors.
The spokesman said that some of the results of downland initiative so far included
- opening up an extra two miles of footpaths and bridleways
- opening up 290 hectares of open access land for the public
- creating easy access routes at Stanmer for disabled people and those with buggies
- letting an orchard at Stanmer to a community organisation offering education opportunities
- providing additional allotments at Ovingdean
- setting up food projects between schools, farms and the city’s Food Partnership
Historically, the council has aimed to maximise income from farming, balancing this against social and environmental factors.
The council spokesman said that the formation of the South Downs National Park and the growing interest in the environment, wildlife and ecology provided new opportunities.
Councillor West added: “Some progress has been made with the downland initiative by our agents working with farmers.
“We now want to build on that by taking a closer role.
“The model we now want to look at is similar to how the council treated the seafront estate as a special case, developing it as a key part of the city’s offer.
“With our good transport connections into the Downs, we have the opportunity to make the city the major gateway to the national park.
“Running the estate in-house is just a first step toward setting the right conditions to enable that all to happen.”