The idealistic view of a village green is a central grassed area with benches and a duck pond; imagine any picture postcard. Sometimes the reality can be quite different and often local residents will act to try and have an area registered as a village green in order to preserve it from potential development.
In Bristol, an area of playing fields was leased by Cotham School on a long lease of 125 years. The owner of the land was Bristol City Council itself. Some years ago, in 2011, a loose association of individuals came together to “save” the playing fields and made an application to the City Council for registration as a village green.
The Council took advice from a suitably qualified inspector who initially advised that it should, indeed, be registered. However, nothing happened! Over the subsequent years, the law changed as new cases came before the Courts and these changes had an impact.
The Council subsequently decided that the inspector should hold an enquiry in public, taking evidence from all interested parties. He did this and decided that the land should not be registered. A critical part of the evidence was that there had been signs erected some years before, warning off trespassers. In the circumstances, it became difficult to know how local inhabitants could claim to have used the area “as of right”. Such use is a crucial factor in establishing the existence of a Village green.
Having received this advice, the relevant committee at the Council met and ignored it. It decided that the area should be registered as a village green.
Unsurprisingly, the school appealed against the decision and applied for a Judicial Review. The hearing took place earlier this year and the decision was quashed. The Judge said that the committee had “erred in law” in deciding that the use of the area had been “as of right” and had failed to explain the reasons upon which it had rejected the inspector’s findings.
The law relating to village greens has always been complex but councillors have a duty to give appropriate weight to the advice which they receive or be prepared to explain why they choose not to accept it!