Sunday, February 08, 2009

Future of Mycenae Gardens – Update

To protect any more of Mycenae Gardens from being sold by the Council, an application has been made by members of the local community to register the gardens as a town or village green. The application will be decided on Wed Feb 11th at 18.15 at the Woolwich Town Hall by a Committee of the Council.  This means that the Council is acting 'as judge in its own case'.  Members of the public can attend and (if arranged in advance) speak at the meeting.

 The Council has described the gardens, as  ‘a well used and much treasured oasis used by local people and Mycenae House users alike.  They are ideal for wedding parties, picnics, informal children’s games etc.”  They have been used in this way since the Council bought them in the 1960s. The gardens therefore seem to meet all the statutory criteria for registration as a Town or Village Green under a law introduced in 2007, e.g. that a significant number of local residents have indulged as of right in lawful sports and pastimes on the land for a period of at least 20 years.  The only point that the Council disputes is whether they did so ‘as of right’, that is without being given permission to do so by means of some form of communication, such as public notice. 

The Council concedes that it has no evidence of any such communication or that people have not use it ‘as of right’.  It made no attempt to refute the applicant’s evidence.  Moreover the law says that once the 20 period has been achieved, any such grant of permission must be disregarded.  But the Council seems likely to reject the application. If the land were registered, the Council would no longer be able to sell off any more for development.  It has threatened to go to the European Court of Human Rights  to seek compensation if it loses the ability to sell off the gardens to raise revenue.

 The QC instructed by the Council advised them that “Basic fairness requires that where a matter depends in whole or in part on a determination of fact on which there is no appeal, the decision–maker must be as independent as the statute allows”  

The regulations that came into force in 2008 go further than that.  Regulation 27(2) provides that a Town or Village green application must be referred to the Planning Inspectorate for determination where a Council as registration authority has an interest in the outcome of the application and there is unlikely to be confidence in the authority’s ability impartially to determine the application. 

 The Council has already sold off some of the land to finance Council developments elsewhere. It could no longer do this if the land were registered as a village green.  So the Council proposes to decide the application itself rather than refer it to an independent body like the Planning Inspectorate, a relatively cost-free alternative routinely used for disputed planning applications.  The Council has already sought 5 – largely irrelevant – legal opinions at considerable cost.  A formal complaint by the applicant about the conflict of interest has been rejected by the Council’s Chief Executive.

 A major beneficiary of registration as a village green would be the Greenwich Steiner School.  The school reportedly is committed to a 150 year lease for the buildings; but if the application were refused, its use of the land for sports and pastimes would be by permission which could be withdrawn at any time if a future Council decided to sell off the land for development.  It is difficult to see how the school could be viable without the area the pupils have used as a playground for a decade or more.  

Concern has been raised about the future of  new flats on the site. Whatever view is taken of the flats (which are now virtually complete and were built in the grounds of a Grade II* listed building contrary to the explicit recommendation of the Council's conservation officer and English Heritage), the courts have ruled that land does not become a town or  green until it is actually registered and the 19th Century statutes protecting greens are unlikely  to apply to works or encroachments that were made prior to registration.  The prime objective of the application is, therefore, to prevent any further development of the land. This seems in the interest of all users, including the school.


Further information from Lawrence Smith (8858 1006) –


Peter Reeve said...

I lived in Westcombe Park Road in the 1930s. I remember the convent on Mycenae Road. I don't see this as a defeat for the Westcombe Society. The situation has been opened up and clarified. I don't at all believe that the Borough Council will sell off a lease to any other developer. I really don't. Had the Garden become common land there would have been little control over how people used it. As freeholder the Borough can close the Garden at night, they can prevent people using motorbikes and they can generally supervise the area as an open space for the convenience of local residents, sharing it with the Steiner School, with the flats and with Mycenae House. Meanwhile the Society can take a lead in starting an Appeal so that the long wall up the hill can be maintained. I remember that wall as a boy. It now looks very run down. Come together, everybody. The Gardens are unspoilt. Keep it that way.

Anonymous said...

It is suggested that the Council want to protect its right to allow development of the Gardens, as though this is still in its mind, but I believe that the Council was in fact defending its right to allow the flats to be built. We should remember that Woodlands House was badly in need of money to be spent on it and this work was pressing. The sell-off allowed the developer to build the flats.

Had the entire grounds been registered as a village or town green, the flats might have had to be pulled down. The whole thing was a deal, of course, which the council had, in effect, to stand by, do you all not see? The Council saved a lot of money and made quite a lot of money. The whole area is less neglected and better used, as well as still open to the public to use. What is really so wrong about that?

Anonymous said...

It is suggested that the council wanted to defend its right to allow possible development of the Gardens, but I believe it was in fact defending its position over allowing the flats to be built.

Remember that Woodlands House was badly in need of expensive restoration and that a sell-off to the developer was to save the council a great deal of money and give it a tidy sum too. Had the entire grounds been declared a village or town green, it is possible that the flats might have had to be pulled own. That stood to ruin the developer and quite possibly could have pulled the rug away from under the school.

The Council was in effect honour bound to stand by what it had allowed, but this does not mean that it will allow further development. The result is that a rather neglected building and grounds are restored and in good use, and the gardens still open to the public. Not such a bad result, one might think. Christopher Fry, who first encouraged the Borough of Greenwich to acquire the mansions and grounds, would in the circumstances perhaps not have been displeased.

Peter Reeve said...

The Future of Mycenae Gardens? Let's hope that the monastry garden stays as it is - and that the Parks and Open Spaces people leave it alone. The Garden is an idyllic spot and a bit of a treasure.

Surely we don't want to see footpaths, benches, notices and suchlike? Nor do we need to see an adventure playground, doggy boxes or even flower beds. I say leave it as it is, an oasis of real nature.

On the other hand, the long redbrick wall has been neglected and needs pointing and repair. This is London - the Olympics are coming to Greenwich. Someone has cemented over part of that pretty wall and that doesn't look good at all. As for the bricked up gate, it is a moot point if that should be reopened. At any rate, there should be some ground rules about no bicycles or loud music. In this the Borough can lay down some rules - in small print at the entrance.

If the Westcombe Society can agree with the above, I am sure there is a role for it. And as for the Steiner School, I believe that can be trusted, with its orientation towards natural living. to help protect the Gardens as a remarkable open space in the big city.

Vanbrugh said...

If the Council had wished to protect the land from development the only way this could be achieved was by registration as a village green. But the Council sees the land as a potential development site (as it did the bit it sold off, which was done for reasons entirely unconnected with the school). That is why it was seeking compensation for loss of development rights. There was no threat to the flats - the application expressly excluded the buildings on the site.

Registration would not have stopped the Council from locking the gates at night - though they will now have to be left open to provide access to the flats, security being controlled instead by CCTV.

The loss to the community is that the Council could now withdraw the right to use the land at any time it wished, depriving the Steiner school of its recreation area and Mycenae House of access that is much valued by play groups, wedding parties &c. The Council could stop the Westcombe Society from using the grounds for its annual picnic, so the Society is clearly a loser from the Council's improper conduct and decision to flout of the law.

The Council itself had recognized the grounds as a much treasured oasis, but that did not stop it from acting to ensure the previous right to enjoy the gardens has ended. There is now indeed a threat of adventure playground equipment in the grounds. The efforts to preserve the gardens in their current state have been defeated by the Council.

Peter Reeve said...

Far be it for me to take issue with the last comment as it seems well-informed. but an assumption to me seems to be to have been made that the Council has in mind to allow the development of the Gardens, in which it could restrain the right to use the area.

The Council is controlled by elected councillors. Is it so, I wonder that any single councillor is on record as moving in this direction? What, is it supposed, English Heritage would say about development on the grassy are in front of the two mansions? and what about the law for the protection of the fine trees further down. Is the Borough, with the rich history of Greenwich, willing to spoil the whole aspect of Woodlands House?

I doubt it. And in any case, one day, the leases of the mansions will expire, with them reverting, if not renewed, to the Borough. Wouldn't it be a case of selling part of the area's birthright?

I think if the Council were to attempt such a thing, the outcry would come from far beyond that of the Westcombe Society. Almost certainly, it would be raised in Parliament. Those Gardens are a treasure and should be sacrosanct. I credit the Borough with more acumen and taste than to allow them to be spoilt.

Anonymous said...

In reply to Vanbrugh, the following quote from the records may be of interest:

Monday, March 13, 2006
Woodland/Mycenae House

A meeting was held on March 10th with Council representatives, Westcombe Society Committee members, Vanbrugh Community Association members and representatives from the Steiner School to discuss the latest developments with regard to the future of Woodlands and Mycenae House.

There is a prospect of exchange of contracts with the Steiner School for a 125 year lease on Woodlands within the next few weeks (it is currently with the Chris Roberts, Council Leader) and emergency work could then be started on Woodlands. The Steiner School's developer would then put in a planning application for the residential development proposed for a small part of the site which is paying for everything, and if that goes smoothly then there be completion in about 5 months. However, there is every reason to consider that the residential proposal will not be problem-free, and there could be additional delays before the formal exchange of contracts.

Vanbrugh said...

Peter Reeve suggests that the views of English heritage would carry weight. Regrettably, the Council simply ignored the advice (and conditions set) by English Heritage in respect of the recent development. There is no reason to suppose that the Council would take any more notice if English Heritage opposed any future development on the site.

Anyone can see what the Council is doing to the Vanbrugh Fields frontage of the John Roan Upper School, which is already locally listed, is in the World Heritage Site Buffer Zone, and which English Heritage had proposed for statutory listing.