Back in December 2011, I wrote about the conservators’ meeting on 5 December, which considered the racecourse’s proposal for consent to works on the Tattenham Straight, and its proposal to extract fill material from the hatched area on Six Mile Hill. I said, “The meeting then went into closed session to discuss (presumably) the contribution to the repair of the downskeepers’ hut.”

The minute of that session was, like the closed session itself, designated ‘confidential’. On 18 December, I asked for disclosure of the confidential minute under the Environmental Information Regulations 2004. After some prevarication, I received the minute on 1 June.

It seems that, even as the meeting purported to grant consent for extraction of the fill material, the meeting was in closed session advised that the racecourse was unlikely to be able to obtain the consent of the freeholder to the extraction (the freehold of Six Mile Hill is vested in The Trelissick Trust as successor to the late Stanley Wootton, who granted a long lease to what is now the racecourse). It seems that the racecourse had offered to pay for the necessary consent, but no response had been received.

The racecourse proposed to source fill from elsewhere. And here’s the stunning bit: “The Council-appointed Conservators expressed concern at this possibility, in particular as it would not provide the ecological benefit that would be achieved through use of the ‘hatched area’ as a source of material. The Chairman emphasised the importance of the ecological benefits to be gained, and requested the Racecourse to continue its efforts to come to an agreement with the freeholder.”

When this proposal first surfaced (cynically revealed a few days after the meeting of the consultative committee on 31 October 2011, where not a word was said by the racecourse or the chairman — even though plans were sufficiently well advanced for local exhibitions the following week), we assumed that it was driven by the racecourse. What’s now clear from this minute is that the proposal to use specifically the hatched area for a source of fill material was viscerally supported by the chairman. When that seemed likely to fall through, the chairman pressed the racecourse to find a way to proceed with it nevertheless. Indeed, one wonders whether the chairman originated the idea in the first place? Whatever, the minute is hardly suggestive of a board of conservators reluctantly going along with the racecourse’s plans as the least worst option for extraction: quite the reverse — “The Council-appointed Conservators expressed concern” that the racecourse might source the fill from elsewhere!

Needless to say, if the conservators were serious about delivering ecological benefits, they could do that anywhere on the downs at any time. They don’t need to render a hack area permanently unfit for use to do that. Yet the board meetings rarely focus on conservation of the downs, despite the board’s statutory purpose§ of conserving the downs (apart from a spurious concern about the impact of harmless athletics and charity events — see this story for one resident’s view on that — without a word ever said on the matter of the incomparably greater impact of race days), and even the proposed extraction of fill from the hatched area, ostensibly done with conservation in mind, would have seen 250 x 20 tonne HGV movements trundling along the downs’ bridleways.

So it’s hard to see this proposal as about conservation: it’s really about its impact on the hatched area, and the board’s aspiration to wreck, once and for all, any possible future use of the hatched area for hack riding. Thanks, unexpectedly and perhaps unwittingly, to The Trelissick Trust, the proposal has gone into abeyance.

[§ Section 10 of the Epsom and Walton Downs Regulation Act 1984 sets out the primary duty of the board as follows: “It shall be the duty of the Conservators to preserve the Downs so far as possible in their natural state of beauty”.]