There is strong feeling in Rye that Rother District Council has betrayed its trust. Its action in putting up Camber Fields for public auction and its refusal to engage first with the local community has angered many residents. The fields are open for public enjoyment by virtue of the footpath running across them towards Camber. They are the site for the bonfire society’s annual firework celebrations. They are an essential open lung space for the town to breathe and they contribute in significant part to Rye’s architectural heritage. They are a community asset.
When various assets owned by Rye Town Council were transferred to Rother District Council under the Local Government re-organisation in 1974, it was widely presumed that they would be held for the benefit of the local community. Up till now, this element of stewardship has been acknowledged. Rother released the Ypres Tower for example into the ownership of Rye Museum for a notional sum. Further, Rother has entered into discussions with Rye Town Council concerning the Landgate, and the public conveniences. The ownership of the town’s car-parks is also a matter pending negotiation.
With Rother’s refusal to withdraw the Camber Fields from auction, a new phase has opened in Rye’s strained relationship with Rother. From being a steward of community assets, Rother has shown itself as impervious to local opinion. What one might ask does the future hold for the Salts for example? Are they to be offered for sale behind the community’s back? How safe from potential private predation are our car-parks, which are so vital to the continuing economic well-being of the town?
It might be argued that planning controls can regulate any antisocial exploitation of community assets following their privatisation. This is disingenuous – we have all seen the government’s determination to relax planning restrictions in the interest of economic growth and more house-building. The future of green belt protection is uncertain. What confidence can we have that a Neighbourhood Plan can protect our environment?
Rother District Council may itself examine how a decision in Cabinet to offer Camber Fields first to the tenant farmer or to an appropriate voluntary organisation was not carried out conscientiously by its officers. This in itself will not bring amends. Nothing short of an acknowledgement is needed that the future of publicly-owned assets should be determined in consultation with the local community. But it is more likely that Rother will congratulate itself on having achieved the best value for rate-payers.
This is to misconstrue its democratic obligation towards its constituent members. What is required now and will be actively sought in public campaign is that Rother allots the proceeds of this sale of Camber Fields towards fulfilling its existing responsibilities towards Rye; and in particular, to use the unbudgeted windfall for putting back the Landgate into proper condition as a key part of Rye’s historic heritage. We invite our readers to make their views known strongly in support.