Anger after ‘u-turn’ over village green status bid

Keith Milchem, left ,with fellow campaigners at the Fern Road site
Keith Milchem, left ,with fellow campaigners at the Fern Road site

RESIDENTS have been left dismayed after their two-year fight for a village green was hit with a further delay following an apparent council u-turn.

Campaigners in Fern Road, St Leonards, first submitted an application for village green status to East Sussex County Council (ESCC) in January 2009 in a bid to stop developers building on the land.

When ESCC officers finally produced a report last week, the group was thrilled that they had recommended the village green status be granted, but their joy turned to disbelief when just days later the officers changed their decision and recommended instead the issue go to a public inquiry, a move agreed at a meeting at County Hall.

ESCC says that new submissions by the developers were received and it did not want to risk the case going to a judicial review, but campaigner Keith Milchem was bitterly disappointed.

He said: “I understand the law surrounding village greens is complex and often involves High Court judgements. What annoys us is the extreme delay for everyone concerned. If ESCC officers are not able to make decisions based on law they should go to public inquiry more quickly to save all parties the anguish and uncertainty.

“The council has had all the information from both sides for two years - you would think when they finally produced a report it would be well thought through.”

Mr Milchem said he and his colleagues who hacked over to Lewes for the meeting were less than impressed with the democratic process. “It lasted less than a minute and it seems that things had been decided behind closed doors. We do feel let down and we have been left in limbo. We need an answer.”

A spokesman for ESCC denied the authority had made a u-turn because the option of a public inquiry was always on the table, and said the report was changed because it wanted to avoid the costly judicial review process.

He said: “The council has decided to hold a public inquiry which will enable all the issues to be aired at a public hearing.

“We understand why some residents are annoyed about the time it is taking to resolve this issue, however it is important that all sides have a fair hearing, and that any decision is capable of withstanding legal challenge, which would result in unnecessary expense, delay and uncertainty.”

But Cllr Matthew Beaver, who represents West St Leonards and who was at the meeting with his colleague Cllr Joy Waite, pointed out that the objectors could still push for a judicial review even after a public inquiry.

“It has dragged on for too long and it was quite a shock when the council withdrew its initial report, effectively contradicting itself. I can see why they did it but it is a shame no one thought of this earlier.”