An alliance of Green and Conservative councillors has thwarted the sale of two downland sites by Labour-run Brighton and Hove City Council.
They outvoted Labour in a meeting at Hove Town Hall just a few hours after protesters held a demo outside.
They have asked for a policy review panel to look into the proposed sales before a final decision is taken on whether to sell the agricultural land in Poynings and Plumpton Hill.
They asked for more information about the sites and their value as well as alternative ideas for raising money as officials try to fund the restoration of Stanmer Park.
Outside the meeting, environmental campaigners gathered in protest at the plans.
Campaigners outside the meeting at Hove Town Hall. Credit: Brenda Pollock
Labour councillors warned that the hold up could put at risk a £3.8 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant towards the £5.83 million Stanmer Park project.
The council is expected to contribute £1.42 million. It was counting on half of the £360,000 proceeds of the two sales to go towards its share of the costs.
Councillors previously gave permission for the disposal of “non-core agricultural assets” in support of the Stanmer Park lottery bid.
Land forming part of Devil’s Dyke Farm has already changed hands for £25,000. Some cottages have also been put up for sale.
Opposition Conservative leader Geoffrey Theobald told the council’s Policy, Resources and Growth Committee that people were concerned that this could be the first of a number of sales of downland.
And he said that there were alternative sources of money, including the proceeds from the sale of King’s House, the council’s former headquarters.
Green councillor David Gibson expressed a degree of scepticism about what he said could be described as a privatisation. And he said that more information was needed before councillors could reach a proper decision.
The Green group convenor, Phélim Mac Cafferty, said that there were alternatives to the proposed sales.
Councillor Mac Cafferty said: “There are a number of other alternatives. We laid out some of them at previous committees.”
He said that the plan to split the proceeds of the sales between the Stanmer Park project and other capital projects failed to respect the previous decisions of this committee.
This was why he felt compelled to call for the review, he said, although he understood the need for speed.
Labour councillor Les Hamilton said: “In the 45 years I’ve been a councillor this is the most peculiar and unusual thing I’ve dealt with. This was agreed two years ago.”
He said that when the committee backed the scheme in December 2014, it was welcomed by Green councillor Ollie Sykes. The Greens were running the council at the time.
Councillor Hamilton said: “What is non-core? Not farms. To make out farms are under threat is not true. Farms are core assets.”
The sites at Poynings and Plumpton were outlying sites, he said, with the council’s main downland holding going from Rottingdean in an arc to Portslade.
And he added: “The Stanmer estate is ten times as big as these two pieces of land put together.
“These two bits of land here could be sold for £360,000. Our annual rental on these three sites is 3,600. It’s 100 times the annual rental.
“There is no public access to the Poynings site. How well it affect that site if that land is owned by the farmer instead of rented by the farmer?
“Plumpton College has been looking after the land at Plumpton Hill since 1953 and public access is guaranteed. It is protected in perpetuity. It is in the South Downs National Park area.
“The price of the land is quite small because you can’t use it for anything else. It’s a long-term secure agricultural tenancy and it can’t be used for anything else.
“The public will not notice any difference. But from the emails I’ve had, you’d think we were selling off the whole of the Downs.
“We are selling non-core assets to put money into core assets. That’s our policy and why we can’t keep to our policy is beyond me.”
Fellow Labour councillor Gill itchell, the deputy leader of the council, said: “We’re obviously content that this proposal has been brought forward in a totally sound way and in agreement with policy.
“Opposition councillors are now trying to lead us into what I hope will not become a rather uncertain position.
“We have partners. The council is not doing this in isolation. If they see us arguing at this very early stage, they might start to lose trust in us.”
The Labour council leader Warren Morgan said that he was at a loss to understand why the latest delay was being introduced by the opposition parties.
A policy review panel is expected to meet as soon as possible. The panel will either recommend the sale of the sites or that funding should come from another source.
Its recommendation will come back to the next Policy, Resources and Growth Committee meeting or, before, to an Urgency Sub-committee meeting.
Brighton and Hove Friends of the Earth (BHFOE) held a protest outside Hove Town Hall before the meeting.
The organisation said that members were outraged at the news that the council appeared to be continuing with its downland sales.
Chris Todd, from BHFOE, said: “It’s shocking that councillors are being asked to make this decision based on such an inaccurate and misleading report.
“It is premature to be trying to press ahead with the sales again until there has been a full review of the downland estate.
“Local residents have a great affinity for their Downs, which some councillors appear to have forgotten.
“This land was bought for conservation purposes and bequeathed to us to look after for our children and grandchildren.
“We should not be flogging it off for a quick buck. That is a betrayal of both past and future generations.”
Earlier the council issued a statement. It said: “The proposed sale of three council-owned downland sites to support the Stanmer Park restoration project does not put downland around the city at risk.
“The sites represent less than 1 per cent of the total estate and all are protected by the highest level of statutory protection, irrespective of ownership.
“Sales of two sites at Poynings and Plumpton Hill will raise £360,000, half of which will be invested into restoring the city’s biggest park at Stanmer and the other half will go towards the council’s capital investment and budget strategy contributing to service delivery.
“The third piece of land has been sold.
“Fourteen surplus farm cottages were approved for sale by committee in July 2016. The proceeds from this will support the redevelopment of the traditional agricultural buildings at Home Farm.”