‘Record turnout’ to planning meeting as council considers Village Green proposals

Written by Peter Davison on .

Ian Mellor addresses the meetingIan Mellor addresses the meetingA government inspector will be asked to decide whether a parcel of land in Marlborough can be designated as a village green to protect the space for future generations.

More than 70 Barton Park residents attended Wiltshire Council’s Eastern Area Planning Committee in Devizes yesterday (Thursday) evening – a turnout described as ‘record breaking’ by one committee member – to voice their support for the plans.

The fight to protect the 4.5 acre piece of land dates back more than 18 months. In 2015, Marlborough News Online reported how Marlborough College proposed to build a hundred new houses and a new building for Preshute School on land it owns north of Barton Park.

A campaign group – Keep Marlborough Downs Special – was formed: not to oppose the new housing or school, per se, but because the only access to the land would be across an amenity area.

The College argued that the land is unused - a claim angrily denied by residents, who say it is used by dog walkers, picnickers, and sports enthusiasts. Environmentalists even planted a community orchard on the site.

An application was lodged with Wiltshire Council – the landowner – in May 2015. And that’s presented the council with a problem: The authority owns the land, but it’s also the ‘commons registration authority’ – the body with the power to grant or deny the application.

And so, at yesterday’s meeting, members were given two options: to appoint an independent inspector to advise the council on how to proceed with determining the application, or to appoint an inspector to hold a public inquiry.

As councillor Nick Fogg, committee member and ward councillor for Marlborough West – which includes Barton Park – remarked: “It’s a complicated legal issue and a lot of people feel very strongly about it.”

Before councillors deliberated the application, representatives against and for the proposal were allowed to speak.

Leading the opposition charge was Paul Grace, a lawyer specialising in planning matters from Berwin Leighton Paisner, representing Marlborough College.

In fact, Mr Grace supported the call for a public inquiry, saying the College “recognises the need for fairness and independence.”

Also speaking in opposition was Celia Hicks, who retired as headteacher of Preshute School last year, and now works for the school as an ‘improvement advisor’.

Mrs Hicks reminded the meeting that the Victorian school buildings are “not fit for purpose” and that the school site – in Manton village – is on the opposite side of the busy A4 for the majority of pupils, who come from the 1980s-built Barton Park estate.

A map showing the proposed development site and the proposed access which forms part of the L shaped parcel of ammenity landA map showing the proposed development site and the proposed access which forms part of the L shaped parcel of ammenity landShe said the search for a new site had taken 20 years. Creation of a village green on the access site, she claimed, “could scupper the possibility of us building on this land.”

Three residents – the maximum number permitted – spoke in favour of the application.

Paul Rogers said the field was “the only open area for some considerable distance” and used by local people for more than 20 years for dog walking, kite-flying, snowman-building, picnics, and as a space for children to play.

“It is ridiculous for the College to suggest this is not the case,” he said.

Peter May pointed out that green space is at a premium in Marlborough. “Protecting this area of land would provide an essential amenity for future generations. The community has used it not ‘by right’ but ‘as a right’,” he asserted.

Calling Wiltshire Council ‘paranoid’ he challenged members of the committee, saying: “The bravest thing would be to grant the application. How brave do you feel tonight?”

The challenge was supported by Ian Mellor, the resident who had submitted the original village green application.

Reminding councillors that 120 submissions had been made to the authority, with only two against the proposal – Marlborough College being one – he said: “You have nothing to lose by registering the land now.”

Councillor Fogg, who said he was feeling brave, and gave his full support to the application, sought legal advice on whether the decision to register the land as a village green could be made there and then. He was told it couldn’t.

He told the meeting that he had been ward councillor for Kennet District Council and Wiltshire Council since the 1980s. He knew the architect of Barton Park, the late Nigel Clark, and said the parcel of land had been left undeveloped “as part of the overall design”.

“It’s a lung for this whole area,” said councillor Fogg.

And having paid tribute to the large number of residents who attended the meeting to show their support, councillor Jerry Kunkler (Pewsey) said “If I could grant the land now, I would.”

A proposal by councillor Mark Connolly (Tidworth) to appoint an independent inspector to hold a public inquiry was seconded by councillor Fogg and supported by six of the eight committee members. Councillor Richard Gamble, who is the council’s portfolio holder for schools, abstained citing a conflict of interest, while councillor Stewart Dobson (Marlborough East) was absent with apologies.