Village greens spared in historic ruling against church's plans

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The Independent Online
VILLAGE GREENS all over the country will be safer from the threat of development after a group of residents in Oxfordshire overcame the might of the Church of England in a landmark court case yesterday.

The House of Lords ended a long legal battle by ruling that the people of the picturesque Saxon village of Sunningwell, could officially register a much-loved local open space as a village green - and thus preserve it from housing development that the church was planning.

The decision opens the way for rural communities everywhere to save cherished pieces of land by providing them with village-green status.

Five law lords overturned earlier legal rulings which had blocked the attempt by the villagers to have a 10-acre piece of land near Sunningwell's church, known as the Glebe, registered as a green with Oxfordshire County Council. The land is owned by the church but has long been used by villagers.

The church had applied successfully for planning permission to build two houses on the land, which is valued for residential use at around pounds 100,000. The diocese of Oxford said that as glebe land is, in principle, property donated to a church to provide an income with which to pay for its clergy, the land next to the 13th-century church, St Leonard's, should be used to make money.

The villagers objected. But their attempt to register it as a village green, which would make it safe from development, was rejected by the courts. Although the law allows people to register land which they have used for "sports and pastimes as of right for not less than 20 years", judges had held in an earlier case that the right must be exercised in the belief that it was to the exclusion of outsiders - for the villagers, and no one else.

The Countryside Agency, which backed the villagers' fight, believed this ruling was "complete nonsense" - and the House of Lords has now in effect agreed.

After the ruling, Kate Ashbrook, general secretary of the Open Spaces Society, said many applications to register greens had been thrown out or put on hold pending the Sunningwell decision. "Now we hope this case will enable people once again to register land if they have used it, without being stopped and without asking permission, for 20 years," she said.

"The case will have vital consequences for thousands of acres of open space and millions of people throughout England and Wales."

Last night, the villagerswere celebrating their victory. "It's not only good news for us but for 48 other villages throughout the country who are in similar situations," said one of the leading organisers of the campaign, Geoff Cross.

Amberley Clarke, a retired teacher, and her husband, John, draped St George's' flags from the windows of their house overlooking the land. "We used to pick blackberries on the Glebe when my children were small," she said.

"We flew kites and watched water voles in the stream running through it ... It was absolutely vital it was saved for the village."