Tour de France and its circus collide with Harrogate's ancient land laws

Country-lovers in Yorkshire take on Eric Pickles over the invasion of common land by the cycle race and its entourage

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Indy Politics

Eric Pickles is not the first name you would associate with the world's most famous endurance event. But the Communities Secretary has waded in to use new powers for the first time to ensure that day one of this year's Tour de France is not driven off the road by British bureaucracy.

Harrogate plays host to the end of stage one of cycling's blue-ribbon event on 5 July, but the finish line and surrounding spectator areas lie on the North Yorkshire town's 200 acres of public common, known as The Stray, which enjoys special government protection.

The Harrogate Stray Act 1985 controls the use of the Duchy of Lancaster-owned land, and among the restrictions is a rule that limits events on the open grassland to no more than 8.5 acres. But stars such as the reigning champion, Chris Froome, and the 2012 winner, Sir Bradley Wiggins, will be among the 198 competitors whose presence is the cue for trucks, helicopter landing areas, portable toilets, temporary accommodation and merchandising kiosks – all of them extras for which each stage of the three-week Tour needs space.

In the Stray, it will take 48 acres to fit in everything and everyone, so Harrogate council has had to apply to Mr Pickles for emergency legislation to suspend the 1985 regulations under the 2011 Localism Act. A draft bill, The Harrogate Stray Act 1985 (Tour de France) Order 2014, passed a fourth session at the Commons Regulatory Reform Committee at the end of March and, barring any major objections, will be signed into force by Mr Pickles in early May.

However, the local Stray Defence Association, a group that has been safeguarding the freedom of the Stray for the last 80 years, has written to Mr Pickles's department. The association's chairwoman, Judy d'Arcy Thompson, said: "Without wishing in any way to seem anything other than supportive of the Tour de France and all that it will bring to Yorkshire, and Harrogate in particular, the suspension of a Parliamentary Act protecting Harrogate's Stray is not something which should be regarded as a minor issue. Without protection, the Stray is, potentially, open to irreparable damage, and misappropriation.

"The council are being very optimistic about the time-scale they have put on restoring the Stray to its original state. Should the weather be inclement this could prove a lengthy process. Let us hope that the suspension of its legal protection does not result in a Tour de Farce."

A spokesman for Harrogate council said it was committed to reinstating the Stray as quickly as possible and that it would publish plans for the use of the Stray during the Tour on its website this week.

John McGivern, the council's Tour de France event manager, said: "We know how important the Stray is so we are doing everything in our powers to keep damage to a minimum."

This year's event will be the first time the Tour has arrived in Britain since 2007, when it began with a prologue in London.