Agenda item

Application to register land known as Rammell Field at Cranbrook as a new Village Green


(1)       The Panel Members visited the application site before the meeting. This visit was attended by Mr Howard Cox (the applicant) and by some 60 members of the public.


(2)       The Commons Registration Officer introduced the application which had initially been made by Mr John Davis in March 2011 under section 15 of the Commons Act 2006.   Mr Davis had subsequently passed responsibility for the application to Mr H Cox.


(3)       The Commons Registration Officer then said that the application had been accompanied by 69 user evidence forms, a number of supporting photographs and 27 letters of support.  A petition containing over 1000 signatures had also been received. This petition had been submitted with its stated aim being “in aid of our protest against the building of houses on Rammell Field in Cranbrook, Kent.”   This was not a consideration that the Panel was entitled to take into account as it could only consider evidence relating to the legal tests set out in the 2006 Act.


(4)        The Commons Registration Officer then said that the land was owned by the Trustees of Cranbrook School.  It had been acquired in 1922 by an association known as “The Old Cranbrookians Association” to provide a memorial for those who had attended the School and had fallen in the First World War.  The Governors of Cranbrook School had agreed to take the conveyance of this field and had formed the Trust in order to (amongst other things) exercise management over it.


(5)       The landowner had objected to the application on the grounds that use of the field had not been “as of right” for a continuous period of 20 years up to the date of application; that use by the public had been with permission (or else by force); and that the applicant had failed to correctly specify a “locality” or “neighbourhood within a locality.”   In support of these objections, the landowner had provided a letter (dated 2011) from the former School Bursar; a letter (dated 1999) from the landowner’s planning consultant to Tunbridge Wells BC; letters sent to neighbouring landowners in 1999 and 2005; and copies of letters and invoices relating to the hire of the application site for formal events.


(6)       The Commons Registration Officer moved on to consideration of the legal tests. All of these tests had to be met in order for registration to take place. The first of these was whether use of the land had been “as of right.”  She explained that this meant that use would have had to have been without secrecy, force or permission.  When considering whether use had been with force, it was necessary to establish not only whether physical force had been used, but also whether the landowner had taken reasonable steps to demonstrate to the public that use was being challenged.  


(7)       Access to the site during the qualifying period (1991 to 2011) would have been through two gates, as the rest of the boundary had been fenced. The applicants claimed that these gates had never been locked. This was denied by the landowner, who claimed that the pedestrian gate was locked during the school holidays.  A letter from the former bursar (set out at Appendix E to the report) stated that he had always conducted regular checks to ensure that the gates were locked between the years 1989 and 2001. 


(8)       A second area of dispute concerned the notices which the landowner stated had always been on both gates (and replaced on numerous occasions.)   Photographic evidence in the form of the Google “streetview” service provided by the applicant from March 2009 had confirmed that a sign was in place on the pedestrian gate during the later part of the qualifying period.  The image also appeared to show a chain on the vehicular gate, suggesting that it was locked.


(9)       Further evidence that public access had not been unchallenged had been provided by the landowner in the form of letters set out at Appendices F and G to the report. 


(10)     The Commons Registration Officer said that the evidence provided by the landowner (and indeed the applicant) indicated that the landowner had attempted to challenge use by the public, and that such use was not therefore “as of right.”


(11)     The Commons Registration Officer also referred to evidence of booking forms and invoices (Appendix D) in respect of events that had taken place on the land.  These documents demonstrated that on the occasions in question, use had been with permission (and therefore not “as of right.”)


(12)     The Commons Registration then turned to the question of whether use of the land had been for the purposes of lawful sports and pastimes.  She said that 13 of the user evidence forms had not specified the actual use of the application site.   Use of the land as a short cut (stated in 2 of the forms) needed to be discounted, as such use would have been evidence of a public right of way but would not qualify as lawful sports and pastimes.   Use of the land for dog walking (which had been challenged by the notices erected by the applicant) or for organised events (which had taken place with permission) could also not qualify as evidence in this respect.


(13)     The Commons Registration Officer then said that 27 of the 69 user evidence forms claimed informal recreational activities that did qualify as “lawful sports and pastimes.”  However, 16 of these only claimed to have done so on an occasional basis.  Seven of the remaining 11 had accessed the site using garden gates onto the site. This would have been contentious as the landowner had specifically requested them not to do so; and therefore did not count as a qualifying use.  Only four witnesses had actually used the land regularly on a qualifying basis.


(14)     The Commons Registration Officer drew the conclusion that there had been some use of the land for lawful sports and pastimes.  It remained to be established whether this use had been sufficient to pass the test. This question could now be answered with reference to the next test which was whether use had been by a significant number of inhabitants of a particular locality or neighbourhood within a locality. 


(15)     The Commons Registration Officer said that the applicant had specified the locality as being “The Hill, Cranbrook, jct Frythe Way, The Hill, Cranbrook, parish of Cranbrook and Sissinghurst.  This would not meet the legal tests. However, the parish of Cranbrook and Sissinghurst would satisfy the locality qualification as all the witnesses lived within its boundaries. 


(16)     The Commons Registration Officer said that the term “significant number” meant that there had to be sufficient users to indicate to the landowner that the land was in general use by the community for informal recreation rather than occasional use by trespassers.  In this case, although 69 user evidence forms had been presented, only four of them had been qualifying regular users of the application site.  This meant that it was not possible to conclude that the land had been in general “as of right” use by the local community for the purposes of informal recreational activities.  


(17)     The final two tests were whether use of the land “as of right” had continued up to the date of the application and whether such use had taken place over twenty years or more.   The first of these tests had not been met because there was convincing evidence to show that use of the site had not taken place “as of right.”  The second test had not been met because each of the documented formal events that had taken place would have interrupted the period of claimed informal recreational use.


(18)     The Commons Registration Officer concluded by saying that she considered that the required tests for the registration of the land as a new Village Green had not been met and therefore recommended that the application should not be accepted.


(19)     Mr Howard Cox (applicant) said that Rammel Field was in the hearts of the community of Cranbrook.  It was notionally their Village Green.   The decision to apply for Village Green status had been taken reluctantly as a result of Rammell Field being identified for development in the Local Plan. 


(20)     Mr Cox said that the Head Teacher of Cranbrook School had claimed that Rammell Field would be unusable for pupils at the School if the land was registered as a Village Green.  He disagreed with this view, saying that Village Green status would enable the village to come together and to have a space that it could call its own for evermore.  This would continue the local tradition which had seen Rammell Field host fetes, fairs, sports and other events with the full agreement of the School.


(21)     Mr Cox continued by saying that the School trustees had not stated their long term plans for the land.  The petition calling for houses not to be built on Rammell Field had been signed by a very large number of local people, including former pupils of Cranbrook School.  He asked for the Panel’s help to keep Rammel Field free for recreation. 


(22)     Andrew Walker QC addressed the Panel on behalf of the landowner.  He said that the Commons Registration Officer had identified the facts of the case and reached the valid conclusion. 


(23)     Mr Walker said that the trustees considered that this was a very clear case.  Many of the witnesses gave evidence of attendance at rugby matches or of use by pupils for sports.  Such evidence could not be counted for the reasons given by the Commons Registration Officer.  Other witnesses had attested to their use of the field for dog walking and short cuts or to events that had taken place many decades earlier.  Once these statements had been taken out of the picture (as the Law required) it was clear that there had been very little qualifying use of the land. 


(24)     Mr Walker summarised his comments by saying that the land had not been used as of right by a significant number of people.  It was possible to agree that the parish of Cranbrook and Sissinghurst was a qualifying locality.  However, there were only 4 witnesses out of a population of some 7,000 whose use of the land had actually been for the purposes of regular lawful sports and pastimes.   This meant Rammell Field could only be described as a school playing field, which catered for local clubs.


(25)     Mr Walker then said that there would be legal reasons to prevent the School from making use of Rammell Field for the benefit of its pupils if it were to be registered as a Village Green.


(26)     Mr Francis Rook (Chairman of Cranbrook and Sissinghurst PC) said that the Parish Council had supported the application based on the evidence provided.   It had also taken the view that it would be very beneficial to the town of Cranbrook if the application were to succeed.


(27)     Mr R A Pascoe said that the number of signatories to the petition demonstrated that a lot of people cared deeply about Rammell Field.  The application had been well made.   However, the evidence of the bills and letters set out in Appendix D to the report clearly demonstrated that the application could not succeed.


(28)     Mr H J Craske said that Rammell Field would have been an ideal location for a Village Green.  The evidence presented was sufficient to persuade him that the legal tests had not been met as the land had been used “by right” and not “as of right.”


(29)     Mr J A Davies said that the application could not succeed as the evidence of the letters and bills demonstrated that use had not been “as of right.”


(30)     Mr R A Pascoe moved, seconded by Mr H J Craske that the recommendation of the Head of Regulatory Services be agreed.

                                                            Carried unanimously


(31)     RESOLVED that the applicant be informed that the application to register land known as Rammell Field at Cranbrook as a new Town or Village Green has not been accepted.

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