Common Land Exchange is refused
21st Aug 2012: The Planning Inspectorate has refused Woking Borough Council’s application to deregister a part of Westfield Common as common land. Woking Council had applied for the de-registration so that they could construct an access road to the ‘Moor Lane’ site off of Westfield Way. In the process they would remove some wet woodland habitat along the western border of the proposed housing site on the old Oaklands Nursery.
A public inquiry was held on the 27th-28th June 2012, to consider the application and representatives of WCRA attended the inquiry to object and give evidence against the application.
Woking Council had offered an exchange of land as a replacement of land consisting off:
- Replacement Land North (RLN) – The strip of land between Willowbank and the Pond.
- Replacement Land West (RLW) – A block of land to the south of Westfield Way.
- Replacement Land South (RLS) – The former garden of the derelict property known as Oaklands.
WCRA had argued against this broadly stating that:
- RLN should already be considered to be Common Land (due to previous agreements with housing developers).
- RLW and RLN are already available public access land and indistinguishable from the rest of the common.
- Woking Borough Council manages and regulates access to RLW and RLN under its published byelaws for Westfield Common, i.e. WBC treats it as Common Land already.
- RLS was of inferior quality to the land to be lost.
Helen Slade, the Planning Inspector, in reaching a decision to refuse the application stated that:
I conclude that the majority of the replacement land being offered is of a nature and character which renders it so similar to the surrounding common land that it is indistinguishable from it. It is used and valued by the local inhabitants as part of the Common already, and thus its value as replacement land is negated.Replacement Land South is the only replacement land which does not fall into this category. However, it is not of equivalent value in terms of nature conservation and will not be so for the foreseeable future.On balance therefore I do not consider that the replacement land will offer land of at least equal benefit to the release land and I conclude that an Order of Exchange should not be made.
The situation with regard to the Common is clearly confused and suggests that a degree of laxity in its management over the years has led to the precise extent of the Common becoming a matter of convenience, depending upon the purpose in hand. Under the circumstances it is not unreasonable for the local inhabitants who use the Common to have understood that both RLN and RLWwere integral parts of it. This perception has a part to play in the assessment of the value of the replacement land to the public.I find I must agree with the objectors that both RLN and RLW have the appearance, feel and character of the surrounding and adjacent common land to such an extent that their qualification as replacement land is eroded to the point where I can place very little weight on their value in that respect.I consider the Borough Council’s explanation of the situation with regard to public access on RLN and RLW to be contrived. Whilst I accept that the land may not benefit, in legal terms, from a right of public access, the reality is that public access is both freely available and freely exercised; particularly in the case of RLN.
With respect to RLW it is, to all intents and purposes, indistinguishable in character from the release land and presumably subject to the same levels of access, despite its present overgrown condition.Furthermore, as I have already discussed, both RLW and RLN are clearly intended to be covered by the Byelaws relating to the Common as a whole, even if they are not actually registered as common land or part of the Scheme.
A full transcript of the inspectors decision can be found on the Planning Inspector portal.
From a WCRA point of view, we will be interested to see what Woking Borough Council does next given that this is the 2nd time and application to deregister this part of the common has been refused.
The Open Spaces Society have issued a press release welcoming the decision.