Common land – July Asset of the Month

The City of Durham Trust reacts to opportunities and threats at both national and local levels. Such activity can result in the Trust arguing its case at public inquiries etc. Common Land within the City gives an example of this, and is the asset of the month for July. (See List of assets of the month.)

The Commons Registration Act 1965 required the registration of rights to common land, town greens, and village greens in England and Wales. If land was not so registered within the timescale set then people’s right to this land use was lost. The Durham City Trust, in collaboration with other organisations, responded to this opportunity offered by national legislation and sought to register land within the City as common land.

The Trust called for people in the City to bring forth evidence that they had used land for passtime or pasture for over 20 years.

Quote from Bulletin No: 3, Winter 1967/68

Within the next few months all common lands must be registered, subject to subsequent objections, if they are to be preserved for posterity. There are many unoccupied (and perhaps wrongly occupied) pieces of ground which will only be saved if someone with knowledge of their history will come forward now and tell us; or if those who can try to find out will do so. Some of Gilesgate Green, for instance, belongs to the house-holders individually, but does it all? One of our great blessings is the amount of open grass and woodland in and around the city, but how much of it is really ours, and can it be made so securely?

The Durham and Northumberland Naturalists’ Trust is equally concerned about the much wider county areas, and the Secretary, Mr. Barry Woodward (University Science Site, South Road, Durham), would welcome evidence, as would our own Secretary for the city. Customary use by the inhabitants of a locality, for pastime or pasture over not less than twenty years, is the requisite fact.

Quote from Bulletin No: 9, November 1973

Under the terms of the Commons Registration Act 1965, the Trust in 1969 registered as Common five parcels of land in Durham City. The registration of these five parcels has undergone varying fates.

(i) Observatory Field. A majority of the Trustees came to feel in 1971 that the case for registration could not be substantiated. The registration was therefore withdrawn but, since the original application had been made on the petition of a number of members whose interests, it was felt, should be safeguarded, an attempt was made to transfer the registration from official Trust sponsorship to sponsorship by individual members. This attempt was however, unsuccessful.

(ii) Open land at the east end of Old Elvet. No objections were received within the specified period. It is therefore assumed that the registration stands.

(iii) Flass Vale. Three objections were received within the specified period. They were lodged by the Executors of Holliday, Decd., by N. Williamson Esq., and by Durham Corporation in relation to areas of the Vale which each owns, or owned, at the time of the objection.

(iv) Little High Wood. One objection was received within the permitted period. It was lodged by Durham University.

(v) Maiden castle. As (iv).

In the cases of (iii)> (iv) and (v), therefore, the question of registration as Common will now have to be argued pefore the Commons Commissioners who have already begun hearings. The Trust will have to show that the land is either subject to rights of common as defined in the Act or waste of a manor Three small sub-committees have begun to examine what arguments, if any, can be put before the Commissioners and whether the registrations should in any case stand within the boundaries originally specified by the Trust. These committees would warmly welcome the assistance of any member of the Trust (or indeed of anybody else!) in bringing to light any relevant evidence.

The Trust was successful in registering part of Flass Vale as Common Land. See post on Flass Vale for further details. The work of others resulted in the registration of The Sands and land surrounding the public well of St Giles.

However, recently part of the Common Land at the Sands came under threat. In building the new County Hall on the Sands (a building now taken over by Durham University) DDC illegally fenced off the open-access car park which was part of the Sands Common Land.

Quote from Bulletin 87, Autumn 2019

Also taking Trustees and others by surprise, if only from continued disbelief, was the beginning on 12 August of construction work for a new County Hall on the former Sands car park, and of a proposed multi storey car park opposite. The open-air car park was closed despite it being the height of the tourist season. The former coach park was fenced off, despite it being common land and not yet deregistered. This is an encroachment at odds with the Commons Act of 2006, which protects such land from development or restriction of access.

Two parties in particular, both important to the prosperity of the City, are known to be affected by the loss of the Sands car park. Tourist coaches may now be encouraged to bypass Durham altogether, wary of the clumsy new arrangements for dropping off and picking up visitors at Freeman’s Place while based at a new coach park at Belmont. Secondly, some market traders, with vehicles only suited to an open-air car park, are feared unlikely to be seen again.

The DCC applied for this land to be deregistered as Common Land and to be replaced by land on Aykley Heads (land that was then closed to the public to protect ground nesting birds). The Durham City Trust worked with the City of Durham Parish Council and the Durham City Freeman to produce arguments that this land should remain as Common Land. Whilst awaiting the public inquiry on this matter, the land remained illegally closed off. The Planning Inspectorate held the public inquiry on April 27-29 2021 (rearranged from 26 January). Unfortunately, the objectors lost their case and this land was deregistered. However, the rest of the Sands Common Land remains safely Common Land.

Quote from Bulletin 93, Autumn 2021

Trustees were disappointed that part of the Sands was judged to have lost its common land status. Durham County Council had made a retrospective application to this effect after developers had appropriated the space of a former coach park for building works during construction of the building then purposed as a new Council headquarters. The area at issue was to be used as a 60-space car park for the new building, even though the new multistorey car park is only a stone’s throw away. The Trust, represented in the public inquiry by Michael Hurlow, had defended the site’s common land status, along with the Durham City Freemen and Durham City Parish council, represented at the inquiry by Roger Cornwell. However, given that the Council is now under new leadership, there must be hopes that a more desirable use of the land can be granted, either in the former of restoring the coach park, centrally placed as a facility for tourism, or even for it to be gifted back to the Freemen. Readers can find the Inspector’s full report at https://bit.ly/3nCNfMG . In reaching his decision Mr Edward Cousins described the replacement common land area at Aykley Heads as a superior amenity for the public to the land being lost, being both larger in area and part of “a wide open-green space of undulating countryside”. Objectors had argued that this land was too far from the Sands to be suitable and would no longer serve as a protected area for nesting birds.

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