Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Chorlton Shafted Again - No Village Green Status for Hardy Farm

Last year six Chorlton residents applied for Village Green status for Hardy Farm. Some of you may remember that in 2009/10 this area was the subject of a fierce planning battle between the vast majority of Chorlton residents and the West Didsbury and Chorlton Football Club, who own the land and had applied for planning permission to convert it into a vast sporting complex with several grass pitches, an Astroturf pitch and floodlights. In this case the local residents won a famous victory and planning permission was refused. Nevertheless, the club keeps coming back for more and in 2010 received planning permission to install floodlights at their existing ground at the end of Brookburn Road – again in the face of fierce opposition. To many of us granting planning permission for this scheme and not for the earlier scheme made little sense. The application for Village Green status was a brave attempt to protect this much loved area of local green space from further damaging developments.

In order to proceed with the application it was necessary to show that the former owners of the land, UMIST, had, or had not, erected “permissive signs” on the land at some point in the past. This question was addressed at a ‘Non-statutory Public Enquiry’, held before Mr Vivian Chapman QC, at Chorlton Irish Club in January of this year. Mr Chapman concluded that UMIST had erected two signs in the 1970s and even though these signs had been grafittied over and had been illegible for a long time they still counted in Law and that the application for Village Green status should be rejected (please take this point up with lawyers and not with me!).
The matter was put before the City Council’s Licensing and Appeals Committee on Monday and the Committee accepted Mr Chapman’s conclusion and rejected the application. Chorlton Councillor Victor Chamberlain represented the applicants before the Committee and I have published his account verbatim below. Looking at the voting pattern shown below I can only conclude that we Chorlton residents have been the victims of petty political point scoring here. But having said that I’m not going to discuss politics any further in this forum and leave you to draw your own conclusions.
In what follows the term, “the Meadows” refers specifically to that part of Chorlton Meadows known as Hardy Farm.

I'm very sorry to report that the Licensing and Appeals Committee have accepted Mr Chapman's recommendation and have decided not to register the Meadows as a village green.

Mr Turley spoke first and said he had very little to add as the item had been considered by a QC and he supported the findings; he encouraged the Committee to support that recommendation.

Thanks to everyone who sent me comments to make at the Committee; I incorporated all of them into what I said. In summary I raised our objections about the lack of signs and their illegibility and abandonment. I challenged Mr Iredale's evidence and the photos from May 2008. I told the Committee that they have a duty to consider the substantive issue in detail. I asked the Committee to give more weight to the evidence of the Applicants and the public; and told the Committee that by accepting the recommendation they would be choosing to disbelieve the direct testimony of hundreds of Chorlton Residents. I urged them to reject the recommendation and reconsider the application with a mind to registering the Meadows as a village green.

Cllr Sheila Newman also spoke she said it would be a shame if the application fell at its first hurdle. She also said she wished the Committee was looking at the wider issue and not examining just one point in the application.

The Committee Members then deliberated.

Cllr Firth expressed concern that this application was being considered only on the signs. She asked what would happen if the Committee recommended further consideration.

The response from Mr Stoney was that there were strict conditions about what was classed as a village green; and because of the signs had existed the officers concluded that the Application was fatally flawed.

Cllr Helen Fisher said that she had lived in Chorltonville a number of years ago and used the Meadows regularly then. She said that in the whole time she lived there she did not see the signs and therefore understood and sympathised with Applicants' and Residents' accounts.

Cllr Chowdhury argued that WDCAFC took over the land in 2009 and so they had a duty of care to ensure the land had sufficient notices. He said that Chapman's report was based on the Balance of Probabilities and so there is an element of doubt which meant he would not be supporting he recommendation.

Cllr Burns asked what the normal way of providing Notices on the land was. He was informed there was no normal way and so the onus was on the Applicants to prove that there were not suitable Notices on the land throughout the period.

A number of Labour Councillors then spoke to say they supported the recommendation and that they do not consider the land meets the defined definition of a village green.

Mr Turley then responded to some of the points and said that it was private land that had been acquired to provide playing fields. He said there wasn't and won't be any attempt to prevent public access. He said the land would be 'improved' as the Club would protect it. He said that the Public will be able to use the fields as long as they don't damage them.

The Committee then voted.

Against the Recommendation (3): Firth (Liberal Democrat), H Fisher (Liberal Democrat), Chowdhury (Liberal Democrat)
Accept the Recommendation (5): Burns (Labour), Carmody (Labour), Longsden (Labour), O'Callaghan (Labour), Smith (Labour)

As I was leaving the Committee Room Mr Turley stopped me and told me to stop trying to 'perpetuate the myth that the land will be fenced off'. I said I had not done this and was against development of this meadow because I felt it was going to be restrictive to normal people being able to use the land and could be harmful to the local biodiversity and botany. He was clearly very bitter about past events.
We then had a chat and he made it quite clear that he is intending to create pitches on the land very soon. He reiterated that it is private land and the Club can do what it wants with the land; but he did express a wish to engage the Community and end the animosity. I said I would mention this to you all and muted that maybe it would be worth initiating regular meetings with the local community to discuss issues at the club. I said this because I attend a quarterly meeting the Chorlton Irish Club has with the local neighbours where they air their concerns, problems and complaints and the two sides work together to solve them. It works well because the Club listens to the local community and takes action based on what they say to reduce disturbance. Whilst past experience of WDCAFC suggests this may not work I would be interested to hear your opinion.

I'm afraid I don't know where we go from here; presumably we could challenge this decision with a Judicial Review. I would happy to meet up to discuss any potential options.

If you are a Chorlton resident and/or a user of Chorlton Meadows, and feel as strongly about this as I do, I urge you to write to both your local Councillor and to your MP. No matter how pessimistic you may feel there is no excuse for doing nothing!

Posted by Dave Bishop, February 2011

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