Public Inquiry over College Fields village green application ends - report in six weeks
The second day of the Public Inquiry into the application by residents to turn a piece of amenity land at College Fields (at the top of the housing development) into a village green, proved to be both a long day and the Inquiry's final day.
Wiltshire Council want to sell the land - 4.5 acres in extent - so it can be used as access to fields north of Barton Park/College Fields which may be used for a large housing development being planned by Marlborough College. As a 'village green' this open space would be out of bounds to developers or for 'change of use'.
During the morning the crowded Town Hall audience heard the closing submissions from the barristers for the College (Douglas Edwards QC) and for Wiltshire Council (Jeremy Pike). They spent much time on the their claim that this land was 'public open space' and as such the public had used it (they both accepted) for twenty-plus years - but 'by right' and not 'as of right'.
This, they said, made the rejection of the application essential: "The public had become vested with the right to use it as recreational land". Mr Pike told the Inspector that documents about planning policy and recreational areas was 'on all fours' with the land's status as public open space.
Talking with residents at the lunch break, it became clear that this was a pretty high risk strategy. The firmer they were that this land was 'public open space', the harder it would be for Wiltshire Council to sell the land from under the dog-walking feet of the residents.
The Inquiry's Inspector, William Webster, had said that the case rested on the transfer of land in 1993 from the developer of the housing to Kennet District Council (KDC) - the land was then inherited by Wiltshire Council when it took over from KDC in 2009.
Mr Webster did say that if that transfer was at all 'ambiguous', they would have to go further back into its planning history. It must have been pretty ambiguous as the barristers went back into planning applications in 1976 and 1986 - in some detail - and referenced a welter of other documents and agreements. Not to mention a recent Supreme Court case.
The final submission for the residents - or officially 'the applicants' - was given by Mr Ian Mellor who had made the original application for village green status.
The burden of his submission was that the land had never been announced, labelled, signposted, equipped or treated as 'public open space'. The promises made by KDC to equip it as recreational area with hard and soft play areas and so on, had run into the sand.
Mr Mellor argued that the land had simply not been used by the developer because it was the highest point in Barton Park and houses there would have been above the skyline which had been ruled out in an earlier planning appeal decision by the Secretary of State.
He also claimed the land had been held by a part of Wiltshire Council that orders the development of land - 'kept in a drawer for a rainy day'. He was told he was, as a matter of fact, in error on this.
He also told the Inspector that all Wiltshire Council land in Marlborough had been transferred to Marlborough Town Council under the asset transfer scheme - except for this piece of land. Mr Pike told him he was wrong and the only Wiltshire Council owned land transferred to the town council was Coopers Meadow. (How residents at Rabley Wood View would have liked him to have been right!)
Many of Mr Mellor's points were disputed by the barristers - including his point that no announcement was ever made that the land was a public open space. The Inspector intervened: "Mr Mellor makes a very fair point - if this is the position, why wasn't that made clear to the public in 1993?"
Mr Mellor wound up by pointing out that if a solicitor for a potential house buyer had asked Wiltshire Council about the status of this land, he or she would not have got an answer. For the past three years, no one at the Council had been able to tell Mr Mellor what the status of the land was.
Points kept coming from the barristers. But the Inspector, who had visited the land, said that the muddy slope at the foot of the land had 'really interested' him: "It's not very easy getting access to this land - there are no steps. It surprises me that as a public open space access hasn't been provided."
Having spent so much time stating the land was 'public open space', Mr Pike caused some surprise in the audience when he stated "There is no magic whatsoever in the words 'public open space'."
Mr Mellor thanked Mr Webster for his 'very fair and efficient handling of the Inquiry'. Mr Webster thanked Mr Mellor for his 'conscientious and very full submission', thanked the public for turning up - 'and in such numbers' - and said his report and recommendation would take about six weeks to write.
The report goes to Wiltshire Council's Eastern Planning Committee which is the registration authority for village greens. So Wiltshire Council are not only the owner of the land, but also the authority for registering it (or not) as a village green - a conflict of interest which could only be resolved by a costly Public Inquiry.
The committee's last scheduled meeting this financial year is February 22.
Mr Webster said he had enjoyed his 'short stay' in Marlborough. He had lunched at the Polly Tearooms - and told the story of Cary Grant taking tea there on his way (pre-M4) to see his mother in Bristol.
FOOTNOTE: In January 2017 a letter was sent by Marlborough College's Peter Bryan (Director of Corporate Resources & Deputy Master) to the then Chairman of Wiltshire Council's Eastern Planning Committee (EPC), Councillor Charles Howard - addressed to his home. It was emailed on the eve of the EPC's meeting to decide to whether to appoint an inspector to consider the village green application and the objections. The letter gives useful background as to the importance of the land:
"It is also worth noting the important wider context to the application to register the land as a village green and the strong desire from many residents of Marlborough and Manton to see the Preshute Primary School relocated to a new site. The land to the north of the land covered by this application could form a site for the new school."
"In the event that the land that comprises the subject of the [village green] application was used to provide access to the land to the north, at least an equal amount of additional open space and funding to landscape it could be provided."
The situation with the College Fields land is thus very much akin to the dispute over the sale by Wiltshire Council of recreational land off Rabley Wood View for development and its substitution with more distant amenity land. The sale of the amenity land off Rabley Wood View will be finally decided by Wiltshire Council's cabinet at the end of this month.