Supreme Court ruling 'could mean village green designations are removed'

Existing registrations of town and village greens on publicly-owned land could be removed where such registrations conflict with the site's "statutory purposes" following an important Supreme Court ruling today, according to legal experts.

The Supreme Court in London
The Supreme Court in London

The highest court in the land ruled today that registrations of town and village greens should not be permitted where they are incompatible with the statutory purposes for which publicly-owned land is held.

The decision is the culmination of marathon litigation concerning the status of plots of land owned by the NHS and local authorities in Lancashire and Surrey.

In the Lancashire case, local campaigner, Janine Bebbington, applied as long ago as 2010 to register fields adjoining Mooreside Primary School, Lancaster.

The Surrey case concerned woodland beside Leatherhead Hospital which was said to have been used for decades for recreation by local people.

Registration was resisted by Lancashire County Council and NHS Property Services Limited which respectively own the relevant sites.

They argued that registration under the Commons Act 2006 (the Act) was fundamentally incompatible with the public purposes for which the sites were held.

The Court of Appeal ruled in favour of registration in both cases, but the Supreme Court today overturned those decisions.

Lords Carnwath and Sales, who gave the lead judgment, ruled that where land is acquired and held for defined statutory purposes by a public authority, the act does not permit registration where that would be incompatible with those statutory purposes.

Planning barrister Jonathan Clay of Cornerstone Barristers, who acted on behalf of NHS Property Services, said: "This case is a ‘must-read’ of great interest to public authorities whose land has been the subject of a village green registration.

"It provides a clear statement of law which refutes all those who considered that a narrow view should be taken of the scope of the Newhaven case. It is now likely that local authorities and other public landholding bodies may well wish to ask whether the registration of land originally held for particular purposes has been wrongly registered.

"Crucially, the case confirms that where there is a conflict between the use for which the land is held by a public body and the registration of a village or town green, the public authority’s purpose will prevail."

Antonia Murillo, associate and doctoral researcher at law firm Womble Bond Dickinson (WBD) who also advised the NHS, added: "The decision provides a useful clarification of the judgment in the Newhaven case and is good news for all public bodies that hold land for statutory purposes.

"A different outcome could have radically affected the status of publicly accessible land held by public authorities pursuant to statutory powers. This decision means that, in principle, public authorities should review those cases where public authority land has been registered as a village green with a view to removing the registration and equally can be more robust in resisting applications made on land when it satisfies the criteria."

R(Lancashire CC) v Secretary of State for Environment Food and Rural and Affairs and R(NHS Property Services Ltd) v Surrey County Council and Jones [2019] UKSC 59

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