Commoners defend their birthright against developers

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The Independent Online

For generations the Coity Wallia commoners have grazed livestock on 2,000 acres of land near Bridgend, Mid Glamorgan. Now a pounds 1m cash offer and the promise of comparable land elsewhere has proved insufficient inducement to persuade them to give up their birthright.

The land, on a prime site just north of the M4, has been identified by Ogwr Borough Council for industrial use. The developer, Taylor Woodrow, wants to create an industrial estate that includes neighbouring sites and 150 acres of the common. It says up to 1,000 jobs will be created, though local people are sceptical.

The adjoining landowners Celtic Energy and the Dunraven Estates have both agreed terms with the developer. But at a meeting last week an overwhelming majority of the commoners rejected the deal.

A farmer, Gwyn Williams, is the fourth generation of his family to have grazed sheep and cattle on the land. His great-grandfather, Rees Davies, was chairman of the commoners in the 18th century. He hopes his son David will be the next generation to exercise the commoners' rights. "Although they say it is only a small part they want for development, we fear this would be the beginning of the end of the common," he said.

Smoke from a factory chimney that produces foam insulation and the corrugated steel buildings of a plant hire company on the edge of the common give a foretaste of what will happen to the Coity Wallia if development goes ahead. "There is no shortage of empty factory space in South Wales," Mr Williams said. "This land is important not just for the farmers, but for everybody. People travel here from Bridgend to walk their dogs and enjoy the peace and quiet. That is more important than an industrial park."

There is some construction work planned on the common to build a new reservoir. Mr Williams said it showed the commoners were not "pig-headed". "We know there is a need for the reservoir. Nobody minds that," he said.

Eric Averill, another commoner opposed to the development, said: "Developers are backed by the Welsh Development Agency and the councils seem to think they can walk over everybody to get their way."

However, even the commoners' solicitor, Edward Harris, advised his clients to accept the offer, which involved the money being paid into a trust to benefit all commoners. He fears compulsory purchase powers could now be used. "By refusing this deal the commoners could end up relinquishing the land without compensation."

But there have been threats to the common before. Last year a developer offered each of the 120 commoners pounds 7,000 to relinquish their rights so a shopping centre and a golf course could be built. After a High Court battle, the land was saved. Mr Williams said he remembered in the 1950s plans for a forest on the common and in the 1980s a Japanese company wanted a factory on the site. "There have been many times when they have tried to take the valley from us. We won't give it up without a fight."