Mitford home to make legal history in battle with ramblers

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The Independent Online

It is one of the finest examples of a Georgian Palladium mansion and was once home to the Mitford sisters, infamous for cosying up to Adolf Hitler in the run-up to the Second World War.

Now the "mini" stately home of Pitshill in West Sussex, owned by the Pearson family, is set to make legal history.

The £5m estate is the subject of a fierce planning dispute between ramblers and the Honourable Charles Pearson, who wants to re-route a public right of way so that it no longer passes by his back door.

After two years of legal wrangling, the case is heading for a public inquiry that could have far-reaching implications for those campaigning for the rights of walkers. The case is also being closely watched by other landowners and celebrities who may want to launch similar legal actions should a public inquiry rule in Mr Pearson's favour.

Madonna recently won a legal battle to stop ramblers wandering near her £9m home as part of the right to roam legislation.

But Mr Pearson, who acquired the property nine years ago from the Mitford family, says that he has been deliberately misrepresented so that his opponents can portray him as a selfish landowner hell-bent on keeping the hoi polloi from traipsing over his land. He says nothing could be further from the truth.

"The issue is really about public safety, not privacy," says Mr Pearson, who owns 53,000 acres of Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire in the shape of the Dunecht estate and has an inherited fortune estimated at £70m. He claims that his commitment to restore the dilapidated property means that the footpath could be dangerous for pedestrians who are brought into contact with works traffic.

Unable to carry out the work until the legal issues are settled, he has kept the property empty since he bought it.

"Crucially," says Mr Pearson, "the existing footpath and bridleway is also the only vehicular access to the house and consequently sees walkers, riders and vehicles all sharing a single stretch of roadway passing through a very narrow, 150m-long cutting. I recognise the safety and security issues presented by this existing route and my responsibility to do something about it."

But West Sussex County Council and the Ramblers Association don't see it like that.

"If there's a public safety issue then works can be done to improve public safety. This is about the right of the public to use historic rights of way and the basis in law in a public right of way," argues Adrian Morris, the head of footpaths at the Ramblers Association.

The ramblers are supported by the Open Spaces Society whose general secretary, Kate Ashbrook, says: "Mr Pearson is a local person and he bought the house, nearly 10 years ago, knowing the paths were there. If he didn't want the paths there, he shouldn't have bought the house."

But the Pearson camp also claims to have won support from local councillors, the police and disability groups who see merit in the re-routing scheme.

With neither side prepared to back down the battle of Pitshill will be fought to the bitter end. And the planning inquiry may only be the start. Mr Morris said: "If the case is wrongly decided then there are other avenues open to us, including a challenge that could overturn the inspector's decision."