Next week East Sussex County Council will consider a one-off payment to the Conservators of the Ashdown Forest of £70,000.
The report to Tuesday’s Cabinet explains the pandemic has had a detrimental impact on their operation, particularly on the income received. This has resulted in a forecast deficit of £69,792. Natural England provided a grant of £486,115, but this money is restricted for conservation work, such as scrub and invasive woodland removal from the rare heathland, and cannot be used to offset the deficit in the core budget.
Ashdown Forest is owned by Ashdown Forest Trust (a Charity), with elected members of East Sussex County Council as Trustees. According to the Ashdown Forest Act 1974, any deficit is the liability of the Council.
With reductions in Government grants, rising costs and increased demand for council services, East Sussex County Council decided to stop making a £61,000 grant to the Forest.
The loss of County Council money has led to the Conservators looking for new income streams. However the pandemic has derailed plans to adapt and diversify.
The Forest Centre, including the Pop Up Café, has been shut because of Covid-19 restrictions. In May 2020 the Conservators faced another blow when the long-term ice cream vendor terminated their operating licence, valued at £23,000. The supporting information from the Board explains that two new licences to provide refreshments have now been granted, to provide ice cream and another for hot drinks across several car parks on the Forest. The Conservators hope they will be able to raise considerable more money from refreshment concessions in the future. It is suggested a licence to provide refreshments in the car park nearest Pooh Sticks Bridge could provide between £10-20,000 of additional income.
The 2020/21 budget includes £55,500 of income from the sale of commemorative plates on a new Memorial Wall on the Royal Ashdown Forest Golf Course. However getting consent under Section 38 of the Commons Act 2006 has delayed progress. The report explains the net loss to the budget for this year due to the wall build not progressing is £30,000.
A Chief Executive Officer was appointed in January. James Adler joined from Surrey Wildlife Trust where he was their Director of Biodiversity. The report recognises that with the appointment of a CEO to the organisation and a staff restructure underway, the Conservators of Ashdown Forest are at a critical turning point.
Last year the Ashdown Forest Foundation was established as a charitable arm to fundraise to ensure the best possible future for the Forest. Income from private donations, gift aid and fundraising events could be £150,000.
Over the past two years, the Conservators have trialled donations by text and a membership scheme (for frequent visitors) for parking. The supporting information submitted with the report mentions, because these initiatives have not been successful, enforced parking charges may need to be considered in the future.
East Sussex County Council’s Cabinet meets at 9.30am on Tuesday 2nd March. Follow the link to download the report about the Ashdown Forest’s budget.