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When is a beach not a beach? When it's a village green...

Naming technicality in legal test case may give public the right to use 'private' coastlines

A legal test case, brought by the beach-loving folk of Newhaven in East Sussex, has concluded with the verdict that beaches can be registered as "village greens". For a High Court judge in London, the words used by Parliament "to define 'town or village green' are broad enough to permit the registration of a tidal beach". But Mr Justice Ouseley also ruled that certain conditions must be satisfied, and that West Beach in Newhaven failed to meet them.

The beach was fenced off by its owners, Newhaven Port and Properties, in 2008, for health and safety reasons. Yesterday's ruling was the culmination of a protracted battle in which local people had sought to have the beach registered as a village green, and thus have their access rights restored.

To qualify for village green status, villagers had to prove that the 15-acre stretch of foreshore had been used for "legitimate sports or pastimes" for at least 20 years. The court was shown old family photographs from as far back as Christmas Day 1974, where sports were played on the beach. Others pictured people fishing, walking, riding their bikes and playing cricket there when the sands were exposed at low tide.

In 2010, a public inquiry inspector recommended the registration be accepted. But Mr Justice Ouseley declared that the village green status was "incompatible with the statutory purpose for which the land is held".

Newhaven Port and Properties have always argued that the beach is a working area of the port. At a hearing last November Charles George QC said registering a beach as a village green was "absurd" and would set a precedent for all similar beaches in the UK. This was not, he said, the purpose of the relevant legislation in the Commons Act 2006. "It never crossed anyone's mind that Bournemouth or Brighton beach might be village greens," he said.

But in yesterday's ruling Mr Justice Ouseley said: "I can see no answer to the contention that the ordinary meaning of the words used by Parliament to define 'town or village green' are broad enough to permit the registration of a tidal beach, providing that the nature, quality and duration of the recreational user satisfies the statutory test."

"Parliament has chosen its words, on three occasions, so as to exclude any notion of a requirement that the registered green be 'grassy' or 'traditional'."

But the words are little comfort to local residents. Officials at Newhaven Town Council have said they are taking legal advice over the ruling.

Carla Butler, a town councillor, said: "This is a devastating blow to the morale of people in Newhaven, who have used the beach in exactly the same way as a village green is used for generations.

"In all the years that the public have used the beach there has been no conflict between the operation of the port and the use of the beach. Indeed, photographic evidence was submitted by the town council in support of its application showing local families playing on the sand whilst a jack-up barge was moored there in the past."

Newhaven Port and Properties claim that West Beach is covered by the sea for 42 per cent of the time, that the land used for recreation has no fixed boundary and that there is no public right of access, as required for a village green.