On Day 3 of the Public Inquiry at Menston (Wed 15 August 2012), it was the Objectors’ turn to give evidence, with the clear purpose of making sure the fields could not be considered Village Green, and therefore enabling the developer to proceed with construction.
For the landowner (a Chartered Surveyor and Estate Agent – not a farmer), he denied having seen any significant use of the fields by members of the public other than occasional use of the adjacent Public Footpath. His wife said she knew little about the local community or there being back-to-back housing adjacent to the fields, and could only remember once seeing somebody on the field, whom she allegedly told to get back onto the Public Footpath as there were cattle in the field. She allegedly drove by the fields “on a daily basis” but, aside this one incident, had never seen anyone on the fields, as she “had to focus on the road”.
Despite the landowner living at Hill Top Farm, adjacent to the fields, despite there being an area on the map described as “lagoon”, and despite a watercourse running from the moor top through the fields, witness after witness for the landowners denied there was a significant slope on the fields – so where was the Hill Top?
The other landowner, resident in the Isle of Man (not local then!), nominated a family member from Stoke-on-Trent (also not local!) to give evidence. She said she paid rare visits to Yorkshire, but when she did, she would pass through Menston “to look at my inheritance”. She had never been into the fields nor had she ever inspected the boundaries. She was, however, certain that nobody ever used them.
The representative of the developer’s agent admitted infiltrating meetings of the local community and concocting his own version of the events of the meeting, which he represented in evidence as the legitimate notes of those meetings – a matter he was obliged to admit under cross-examination was not the case. Where he had not attended personally, he had sent “one of my delegated associates” (spies) to attend meetings of the residents and report-back. In his version of events, he had made false and misleading comments about the conduct of those meetings and the statements made or conclusions drawn at those meetings.
The farmer who originally leased the fields from the landowners had ceased putting his cattle on them when the threat of housing development was first raised, and he now farmed at Ilkley. He had only locked the gates when he was growing a hay crop on the fields, and he was aware that there had been sledging on the fields in winter in some years, but this he thought had stopped after a belt of trees was planted on the higher ground. Asked about a sign saying “Bull in field” he said he would “never put a nasty bull” on the fields, and generally unless they were protecting a calf, cattle “don’t normally bother about people”. He’d only once told someone to get off the field, and that was because they had a dog which he thought the cattle might attack.
His wife then gave evidence and said that she was upset that they’d had to move from farming these fields when planning permission was sought for housing, and she knew another farmer was leasing the fields to this day, and yet – despite allegedly being distressed that they’d had to move – she gave evidence in support of the developer who was proposing to turn the fields into a housing estate! Incredible! Why was she not backing the Application to keep the fields free of housing and available for the farmer now using them?
The current farmer said he put up to 20 cattle on them, but not every year and if there weren’t cattle on the fields, he would leave the gates between the fields open. He had been farming on one of the fields since 1991 and the others from 2005 and he’d never seen anything but an occasional dog-walker on the fields. He then proceeded to agree that in addition to the fields at Menston, he farmed another 20+ fields as far distant as Bingley and Otley. He did not explain how much of his time he was able to spend in Menston, given these other commitments. His wife had never seen anyone at all, on or near the fields, including the Public Footpath which ran through one of the fields.
The developer dragged in all manner of spurious witnesses, such as a Surveyor who had visited the fields a couple of times to make an assessment of their value: clearly he undertook this work on behalf of the developer or the agent, for a fee, so he’d not be biased, would he? He’d never seen any resident on the fields when he had visited. A Contract Negotiator for the agents had been in negotiation with Barratt’s and visited the fields two or three times, but he’d never seen anyone on the fields. A chap employed periodically to shoot rabbits on the fields had never seen anyone there when he was shooting: what a surprise! Another witness for the objectors, a Chartered Surveyor (formerly employed by the developers’ agents and now with another such organisation) said that when he visited the site “normally at about 9 a.m. on a working day”, and he’d never seen anybody on the fields. This was supposed to be evidence.
The Inspector heard all this. For the most part, he looked intensely at his papers and rarely looked up at the witness or anywhere else during the giving of evidence. Only he has the authority to determine whether the tests (outlined at the start of this piece) have been met. He did visit the site on several occasions, and we can only trust that he observed that it’s a hillside and that he noted the evidence that the landowner had put up new barbed wire and fence posts prior to the Hearing. This was to make sure nobody could go on the fields, whatever had been the past practice (which was obvious, otherwise why would you put up a fence to keep people out of a field that nobody ever went on?). We await the Inspector’s recommendation, which we expect at the end of September. Wait for part 4 to hear the result.