Lancaster school playing fields secured after village green status is stripped by courts

Moorside Fields overlooking Barton Road.
Moorside Fields overlooking Barton Road.

A Lancaster school has been told that its playing field has been secured for future generations after a court ruling stripped the land of its village green status.

Moorside Fields has been at the centre of a legal battle for many years.

The 13-hectare land adjacent to Moorside Primary School is owned by Lancashire County Council – who last year failed in their legal bid to prevent the land from being registered as a village green.

However, the Supreme Court has now stripped the fields of their village green status, a ruling that campaigners predict will have major implications for the protection of open spaces across England and Wales.

Under the Commons Act 2006, land that has been used for informal recreation for at least 20 years by local people without challenge or permission can be registered as a village green.

Once registered, it is protected from development.

Fears that the land might be built upon saw the Moorside Fields Community Group attempt to register the fields as a village green in 2008.

The group won its case in the high court and the court of appeal.

But last Wednesday’s Supreme Court judgment, by a majority of three to two, has reversed the earlier decision.

The inspectors found an incompatibility between the statutory purposes for which the land is held and use of that land as a green and therefore decided the act is not applicable.

The county council, which owns the land, had objected on the grounds that the fields might be needed for the expansion of the local school.

Some parents feared such a move would open up the school playing fields to the wider public, something that constituted a threat to pupil safety.

A spokesman for Lancashire County Council said: “Our primary concern has always been to ensure that Moorside Primary School in Lancaster provides a secure environment where pupils can get the best education.

“This ruling means the sports field will be secure, and ensures there will not be a situation where pupils would need to take their lessons in a public place.

“It is a really important case not just for Lancashire County Council but for other local authorities and we are pleased that the court has recognised there is a need to protect this land for future generations.”

Janine Bebbington of the Moorside Fields Community Group, who originally applied to have the fields registered under the Commons Act 2006, said: “This is a very disappointing result not only for our campaigners, but also for other community groups who may be applying for land to be registered as a green.

“It is tragic to end with this judgment, after winning at a public inquiry and in the High Court and Court of Appeal, especially when we have consistently proved that we satisfied all the criteria set out in greens legislation.

“At public inquiry, local witnesses explained how they had played on and loved Moorside Fields for the last 50 years or so.

“Members of our community told their stories with great dignity and I am hugely proud of the positive way in which we have conducted ourselves over such a long period of time.

“I am also grateful to the people who have supported our efforts — to other community groups, the Open Spaces Society and Harrison Grant Solicitors.

“It is a consolation that the advice and support that we have given other groups nationally have fed into their greens victories and that our work has not been completely in vain.

“This process has taken 10 years during which time local authorities have been disposing of assets on a massive scale to try to balance their diminishing budgets.

“I fear that Moorside Fields will now be developed or sold to fund new schools elsewhere. We are sad for the people of South Lancaster who in time will lose one of the last bits of open space available to them; and we are sad that England will be less green and pleasant as a result of this judgment.”

The Open Spaces Society, Britain’s leading pressure-group for the protection of town and village greens, also expressed sympathy for the campaigners.

Nicola Hodgson, case officer for the Open Spaces Society, said: “This is a deeply worrying decision as it puts at risk countless publicly-owned green spaces which local people have long enjoyed, but which, unknown to them, are held for purposes which are incompatible with recreational use.

“We urgently need a change in the law to ensure our precious green spaces are protected.”