Hitchin Town’s ground “cannot be sold”

THE land where a football club’s stadium is based cannot be sold without being replaced by somewhere of equal or better value, it emerged at a public inquiry today (Wednesday).

The purpose of the inquiry, held at Christchurch Methodist Church, was to hear representations on whether the land at Top Field, where Hitchin Town Football Club play, should be deregistered from the register of commons.

At the meeting, there were concerns expressed by members of the public that, if the land was deregistered, it could pave the way for housing or commercial development there.

But Maggie Dyer, chairman of the Cow Commoners which leases the land to the club, sought to put the concerns to rest by saying that trustees would have to buy land of equal or better value to accommodate sporting groups, including the football club, in the town. The claim was backed up by planning inspectorate Barney Grimshaw.

She also confirmed that, even if the land was deregistered, it would still belong to the commoners. There had been uncertainty expressed at the meeting, as well as beforehand, on the ownership of the land if deregisteration was to be approved.

“We have not had the best relationship with the football club in the past, but we are working very hard now, and relationships are much better,” said Ms Dyer.

“Whatever happens after today, the land will still remain in the ownership of the commoners. If we were to sell the land, we would have to replace it with somewhere either of equal or better value. We couldn’t just keep the money for out kitty.

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“At the moment, the lease is with the football ground until it expires in 2013. We won’t just kick them out.”

In the opening of the inquiry, Mr Grimshaw had said that the purpose of the inquiry was not to focus on future use of the site, but to determine whether it was improperly registered.

“I’m not concerned with who owns the area of land, and not really of what the future use may be,” he said.

“Obviously, if it ceases to be a common, it probably makes it easier for its use to be changed, although not necessarily. But those would be matters for other authorities.

“I’m here today to see whether there is a case for Top Field to be deregistered. When I come to make my decision, I will take into account everything that’s been submitted in writing as well as anything said during the course of this inquiry.”

Robin Furby, a retired solicitor who told the inquiry that he provides free legal advice to the club, submitted the original application on behalf of Dunmore Developments.

In an opening statement, he presented various documents, including ordanance survey maps, photographs, and minutes from meetings, in an attempt to prove to Mr Grimshaw that deregistration requirements were satisfied.

He also claimed that the application for deregistration was purely to correct an error, although when asked what would happen to the land in the future, he replied that he didn’t know.

Some residents who live in properties backing onto the ground claimed they have used the land for leisure purposes for more than 20 years, in an attempt to dispute that the land had not been used as a village or town green. In order to be eligible for deregistration, the land in question cannot have been used for such a purpose.

The inquiry concluded this afternoon. A decision on whether to deregister the land will be made, in writing, in a few weeks time. Interested parties will be informed by letter.