Thursday, December 06, 2007

Village Green Application for Woodlands

Many local residents may not have seen the report in the Mercury about the the application for the grounds of Woodlands to be registered as Village Green under recent legislation, preserving the grounds from development and allowing them to be used for lawful sports and pastimes in perpetuity. This complements the recently started renovation of Woodlands House, which the Council had allowed to fall into a sorry state. The application, which received the unanimous support of some 160 local residents, was rejected (by one vote).

Due to the sensitivity of the issue and the conflict of interest (the Council would be a major financial beneficiary if the application were rejected) it was originally expected to be heard by an independent public enquiry. The Council’s legal advice was that where there was a dispute on the facts or on whether use has been ‘as of right’, “the practice of commons registration authorities has been to hold a ‘non-statutory public enquiry’ whereby an independent inspector is appointed to hear the evidence”

Although an independent public enquiry is not mandatory, Lady Justice Arden opined, in an important test case, that ”if the registration authority has itself to make a decision on the application….. it should proceed only after receiving the report of an independent expert (by which I mean a legal expert) who has at the registration authority's request held a non-statutory public inquiry”.

She added that “One advantage of such an inquiry is that the proceedings can take place with some degree of informality and utilising a flexible approach to procedure. Moreover, those conducting the inquiry may be able to take account of evidence which is not strictly admissible. This may be a valuable feature of an inquiry, given the period of time over which actions of local inhabitants may have to be investigated. The authority may indeed consider that it owes an obligation to have an inquiry if the matter is of great local interest”.

But the plan was changed. It was decided that the hearing would not be by an independent inspector but by the full Council chaired by the mayor. Even that was later amended in favour of a three person committee chaired by the Leader of the Council (a procedure which was contrary to the Council’s Constitution, which had to be specially amended for the purpose). The Committee split on party lines.

Such a committee is clearly biased (using the term in the technical rather than pejorative sense). The English Standards Board, which provides guidance to Councillors on standards of conduct, has advised that a “decision-making body cannot make an unbiased decision, or a decision which objectively looks impartial, if a councillor serving on it is closely connected with one of the parties involved.” None of the Councillors declared an interest, but all are connected to the Council, the sole objector and the main beneficiary of the committee’s decision.

A fresh application is now expected drawing the Registrar's attention to an important clause (Section 15(7)(b) the Committee had failed to take into account (it was not even mentioned in the legal advice they received). The clause provides that the fact that the access gate was locked overnight after a security lock was fitted in 2000 must be disregarded in determining if the use was 'as of right'.