In the case of Derry Hill Fields at Menston, for which an Application was made (to the local Registration Authority, Bradford Council) some 80+ witnesses submitted written evidence to show that they, their family members and other residents to their knowledge, had made use of the fields for recreational purposes. Menston being a small community, and these fields being on one side of the village, we believe that the numbers of people regularly using the fields for these recreational purposes is sufficient to meet the legal test for a Village Green.
Barratt Developments want to build 174 houses on these fields. If housing was built there, on the ground that rises up to the moor, it would overlook Menston, it would take away this area of green space, and all the traffic would have to go through our narrow village streets to join the congested A65 or other roads in the Wharfe Valley. We’ve only a few shops in Menston, a library and community centre, a couple of churches, a Post Office and a small primary school. That’s the charm of a village, the basic structure of which hasn’t changed dramatically since Sir Thomas Fairfax lived here (at Fairfax Hall) and planned the battle of Marston Moor with Oliver Cromwell. We have a park, at the other side of the village, but we’ve no secondary school, so our children have to go out of the village for secondary education. In recent years, a new village has been created nearby with potentially 600 houses, on the site of the former High Royds Hospital.
The Public Inquiry opened – the first of 5 days – on Monday 13 August 2012, and the Inspector heard verbal evidence from 19 residents about their experience of using the fields over the years. Many of them presented some photographic evidence in support of their experience. Some of these witnesses could point to the fields having been used for games, tents and other festivities at the time of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, thus for over 35 years. Many had photographs of their children (as they were then) on the fields enjoying games or picnics, fireworks or snowballing and sledging. Many more simply went onto the fields every day with a dog for their own and the dog’s exercise. This presentation of evidence took two days.
The Objectors’ barrister (a very senior and experienced QC from London, whose services Menston residents certainly could not have afforded) suggested that all the Applicant’s photographic evidence had been “fabricated”. He challenged the ages of their children on the photographs so as to raise questions whether their use of the fields went back the requisite 20 years. For some of the witnesses, the experience of aggressive cross-examination was stressful.
One learning-point which emerged clearly from the cross-examination of the resident witnesses is that it is essential that they have a map or diagram of the relevant area, so that they can draw or otherwise show exactly where they have undertaken activities on the fields. Without this, the developer’s barrister was able to succeed in confusing some of the witnesses, referring to “the top of the field” by which he meant North on the map, where they understood “the top of the field” to mean the high ground (which was actually to the South). In this way, he caused confusion and took advantage of the witnesses’ natural anxiety about giving evidence in a formal setting. Some became so flustered and upset by his confusing them that they were tearful and frustrated that they had not been able to present their evidence to the best of their ability.
The law does not allow ‘coaching’ or ‘training’ of witnesses, nor should it, and they should not be told what to say, but it is clear that inexperienced witnesses should be given some idea of what to expect from such proceedings and how to deal with any aggressive questioning or – which happened a lot – the reconstruction of what they’d said, to completely distort their evidence.
The evidence presentation on behalf of the Applicant (ie. from the residents) took up Day 1 and most of Day 2, and the Inspector (having heard differing stories about whether the fields had a slope or a drainage problem) said he would have another look at the site during the afternoon of Day 2. On Day 3 (Wednesday 15 August), we were to hear from the Objectors’ witnesses. See part 3 of my blog.