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VILLAGE GREEN STATUS IS BANE OF DEVELOPERS' LIVES

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A legal battle by top home builders, Laing Homes, to stop land being given 'village green' status as a means of blo...
A legal battle by top home builders, Laing Homes, to stop land being given 'village green' status as a means of blocking development has failed.

One of the country's leading planning judges has refused to rule that the use of this method to block development amounts to a breach of the European Convention on Human Rights in that it amounts to deprivation of property without compensation.

Developers are increasingly concerned that the increase of use of this ploy is wiping millions of pounds off the value of their land stocks.

The test case battle centred on land at Widmer End, High Wycombe where local residents successfully registered three fields as a village green.

Mr Justice Sullivan was told that the decision to classify the fields would cost Laing £10m by slashing the value of the land.

The judge today in fact allowed Laing's challenge to Buckinghamshire CC to grant the village green application by the residents.

However, he refused to grant the wider declaration that had been sought - that the legal mechanism under which village greens are registered breaches the 1998 Human Rights Act because it amounts to deprivation of property without compensation.

Laing's claim for a declaration of incompatibility under the 1998 Act had been seen as a test case legal battle to stem a flood tide of applications to create village greens across the country.

Mr Justice Sullivan was told during the March hearing that the creation of village greens is wiping millions of pounds off the value of developers' land stocks.

Laing's challenge was regarded as a stand being made on behalf of developers nationwide who have viewed with increasing concern the rapid increase in applications by villagers to register fields as village greens and by doing so robbing them of development potential.

The company claimed that the three fields in Widmer End were worth more than £10m as development sites, but w ere rendered virtually worthless as a result of their classification as a village green.

It asked the judge to quash Buckinghamshire CC's decision to adopt an inspector's recommendation that the fields, which have public footpaths across them, should be registered as a village green, thereby precluding development on the land.

When the case was heard in March, counsel for Laing, Charles George, said that the 38 acres of land had become 'effectively sterilised' as a result of this decision, and their potential £10.8m development value had been reduced to 'zero'. In fact, it is thought that the land is now worth only £500,000.

He told the judge the 'positive flood' of applications for village green status nationwide, following a House of Lords ruling two years ago backing the decision to register land in Sunningwell, Oxfordshire, was causing alarm for developers, although no case has had such a significant effect on land value as this one.

Revealing that, in one county alone there had been four such applications, hesaid: 'None of the registrations of which I am aware has had as striking a result as the one which is before you here. The result is that it has already, and rightly, sounded alarm bells.'

He said that these cases also cause concern for landowning farmers and housebuilders who buy land with the plan to farm it to begin with and develop it in the long-term.

He said that in cases like this one registration has a 'draconian' effect on landowners because it renders any further farming of the land a criminal offence, but nevertheless no compensation is payable to the landowners.

In this case, Laing owns the land but had allowed a tenant farmer to farm it for 14 of the 20 years prior to the registration. However, despite attempts to keep people off the land, the evidence showed that the public had been using it for the whole 20 years.

Allowing Laing's challenge today and quashing the council's decision, Mr Justice Sullivan said that th e correct approach was not to examine the extent to which those members of the public using the land for recreational purposes were interrupted by the agricultural activities on the land, but to ask whether the public use was interrupting the agricultural use to the extent that Laing should have been aware that the landowners believed they were exercising a public right.

In this case, he said: 'If the starting point is 'how would the matter have appeared to Laing?', it would not be reasonable to expect Laing to resist the recreational use of their fields so long as such use did not interfere with their licensee's use of them for taking an annual hay crop.

'From the landowner's point of view, so long as the local inhabitants' recreational activities do not interfere with the way in which he has chosen to use his land, there will be no suggestion to him that they are exercising or asserting a public right to use his land for lawful sports and pastimes.'

But, in refusing a declaration that the mechanism for registration of village greens breaches the Human Rights Act, the judge said the answer to whether the registration of land places a disproportionate burden on the owner would vary from case to case.

'Preventing a landowner who has been using his land for agricultural purposes for all or part of the last 20 years from continuing to use it for such purposes is one thing; preventing a landowner who has made no effective use of his land for the last 20 years from recommencing any use, save for rough grazing, is quite another,' he said.

STRAND NEWS SERVICE

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