VILLAGE GREENS and how to establish them: part 4: The verdict

Menston: the decision on the Village Green Application for Derry Hill Fields

The Report of the Planning Inspector (David Manley QC) was delivered to us in the afternoon of Tuesday 9 October.  It made disappointing reading.

During the course of the Public Inquiry (13 – 17 August 2012), the Inspector had heard verbal evidence from 21 of the Applicant’s witnesses (Menston residents) and had received written and photographic evidence from some 30 more.  All these witnesses had used the fields for recreational purposes, often with family members.  The Inspector also heard the evidence of the primary landowner (a Chartered Surveyor), his wife, the daughter of another (absentee) landowner, the two farmers who had rented the fields, their wives and a succession of representatives of the land agents, comprising Surveyors, Negotiators, a Landscape Designer and a rabbit-shooter. These witnesses testified that they had never seen anyone on the fields other than crossing via the Public Footpath.  They also claimed that the site was flat, despite it being a hillside with a watercourse running down the centre of it and their own map showing one area as a “lagoon”. Even the developers have not made the claim that Derry HILL Fields were flat!

To his credit, the Inspector paid at least three visits to the fields, which are the site proposed for 174 houses.  Menston currently has around 2,300 residential dwellings, so if construction was to proceed on this site, it adds around 7½% to the stock of housing in Menston. The adjacent site at Bingley Road is proposed for a further 135 houses, thus the combined total of 309 houses would represent an increase to the stock of housing in Menston of 13%, equivalent to increasing the size of the village by one-eighth within 5 years.  None of these figures take account of the construction on the neighbouring High Royds site of another 600 properties.

The Applicant admitted that, until housing was proposed for these fields (which were in Green Belt until 2005), they had not been perceived to be under threat of future development and, since the designation of land for housing lapsed in 2008, these two sites (Derry Hill and Bingley Road) had lost their designation as potential building land. It was only when the plans for development were set out that legal advice had been given – to the effect that land which was regularly used for recreational purposes could be claimed as an area of Village Green.  The Application had been launched after receipt of this advice, and many residents of Menston had then come forward to provide evidence that they and their families had used the land for informal sports and recreational purposes such as walking, dog-walking, kite-flying, picnics and play.

The landowner and/or his agent then responded by erecting new barbed-wire fences and putting cattle into the fields and – for the first time – putting up notices to prohibit entry onto the fields.  Prior to that, it was possible to access the fields and wander at will across them and up the moor side.

After 7 weeks of deliberation, the Inspector came to the conclusion that the number of people using the fields was insufficient to amount to a significant proportion of the local population. He (wrongly) cast doubt upon the dates of some of the witnesses’ photographs, and he appears to have accepted at face value the evidence of those witnesses who have most to gain financially from these fields being built-upon.

The cost to Menston residents (public subscription to an Appeal Fund) has been around £8,000 in legal costs, plus some £2,000 in printing and publicity and an enormous amount of voluntary effort.  However, we also know that the developers and their agents commissioned the most expensive and high-profile QC in the UK (in this field of activity) to pursue their objection, and we estimate that this may have cost them up to £100,000 – and the issue hasn’t gone away!

The disappointment of Menston residents is offset by the knowledge that the process of application and Public Inquiry has delayed construction by at least a further 9 months, and the legal proceedings have given us access to all sorts of information which we would not otherwise have been able to find, such as the title to the land, the original sales proposition and (crucially) the geophysical and drainage impediments to construction.  We are now much better equipped to fight the next legal battle, which we always anticipated, ie. the Judicial Review.