In a previous article, we left the Greenfields Community Group (GCG) in Shrewsbury in anxious anticipation of their case to be heard at the Supreme Court on 7 December 2022. On 1 March 2023, a unanimous verdict was handed down with a victory for the GCG and planning permission to build houses on the land quashed.
The case involved a piece of land which had been wrongly sold to a developer, CSE Development (Shropshire) Limited, who were granted planning permission by Shropshire Council without following correct procedures. The GCG fought a five-year legal battle to save this land in Greenfields Recreation Ground, losing cases in the High Court and Court of Appeals. It was the first case on public parks brought before the Supreme Court in 100 years. This victory has vindicated their efforts to restore the land to public use.
The response from GCG
The campaign was spearheaded by Dr Peter Day and represented by Leigh Day, who reported that Supreme Court Justices agreed with him: “people’s rights over the land … were not extinguished by the sale of the land and should have been considered by Shropshire Council before they granted planning permission for a housing development.”
The judgement commented on the Court’s advice (section 118): “If, as a result of this appeal, other local authorities and parish councils decide to follow that advice and take stock of how they acquired and now hold the pleasure grounds, public walks and open spaces that they make available to the public to enjoy then that, in my judgement, would be all to the good.”
Dr Day was delighted with the verdict, saying: “I and the people of Shrewsbury feel completely vindicated by today’s ruling. This saga should never have dragged on for so long and would never have happened if Shrewsbury Town Council had kept proper records of public land and the statutory trust which granted the people of Shrewsbury rights over the land 100 years ago … This clarification of the planning law applying to the sale and development of public land is a warning to local authorities and a victory for community groups across the country.”
The council response
The council response was guarded. The Shropshire Star (1 March) said: “A spokesman for Shrewsbury Town Council, which is under pressure to buy back the land it sold for £550,000, said the party group leaders are meeting today and they expect to make a statement later today.”
Shropshire Council and Shrewsbury Town Council, promised to “study the judgement carefully” and consider the planning application, now “undetermined” in the light of the verdict.
On 4 March, The Shropshire Star reported: “Shrewsbury Town Council, in a statement said: ‘We must now take some time to more fully understand the ruling and its implications. We will also seek to meet with Shropshire Council, the developer and, of course the Greenfields Community, whilst looking at ways of engaging with the wider Shrewsbury community to ascertain their views’.”
The public response
Besides social media posts, the case has attracted attention from both local and national press. The Shropshire Star has published several articles, and there is an in-depth article from the Shrewsbury Chronicle. On 13 March The Times also published an extensive article.
The countryside charity, CPRE, London branch, (formerly known as The Campaign to Protect Rural England) headlines this as an important judgement for green spaces. The BBC covered the story, as did the Guardian.
The Good Law Project supported the campaign in its fund-raising efforts and reports: “We are thrilled to have backed this important piece of litigation. Nearly 4,000 public spaces and buildings are being sold off every year in England alone, and we believe this judgement could have far reaching consequences for how public land and green spaces are managed by local authorities in the future.” Their article is part of their campaign Help stop the great British public space sell-off case.
GCG are now thinking ahead to what happens next. They have contacted the council to express their concern at the judgement of those involved in the decisions to sell the land and then grant planning permission, and have asked for an internal review to be conducted by an independent party.
They ask for investigation, among other matters, into the Planning Revocation outcome in 2018 and the decisions to abandon mediation in this case. In addition, it is reported that GCG have asked the council and the developer for free access to the land by taking away the fences that have been put up and that “GCG have additionally requested that any changes are put back and the land is made safe for public use.”
“Recreational spaces are so important for our quality of life, and that was especially highlighted during the pandemic. It’s simply not right for these spaces to be sold off without any consultation with those who use them. We hope this will set a new precedent in how local authorities manage and maintain public spaces in the future.” – Hannah Greer (campaigns manager for the Good Law Project)
The power of a legal precedent will give hope to those campaigning across the country for the preservation of green spaces, especially those in urban areas. In Greenfields, the community is celebrating and waiting for enforcement of the judgement, and thinking about how to put the released land to good use.
I am grateful to Dr Peter Day for additional information through his correspondence with Central Bylines.