Residents give evidence at Hitchin village green inquiry

Application has been made to register Benslow Fields in Hitchin as a town green.

Application has been made to register Benslow Fields in Hitchin as a town green. - Credit: Daniel Wilson

RESIDENTS fighting to officially turn a piece of land into a village green in a bid to stave off development and retain it for recreational use gave evidence at a public inquiry this week.

An application was submitted back in 2009 to award Benslow Fields in Hitchin village green status.

The inquiry, which started yesterday (Wednesday) at Christ Church, heard evidence from applicant and county councillor Derrick Ashley; opposers and landowners Hitchin Girls’ School; and residents who live near the site.

Sue Arnott, who led the public inquiry after being appointed by the Planning Inspectorate, said she would need to determine a number of factors in order to award the status.

She told those present it needed to be proved that the land had been used for sports and pastimes for at least 20 years, openly and without permission.

“This inquiry is not about whether or not that land in question should be developed for housing or any other purpose,” she said.

“It concerns the land in the past rather than what it could be in the future.”

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She added: “If evidence is found to satisfy the statutory criteria, the application must be granted and a village green registered.

“There’s no scope for the merits of this application – whether it would be a good thing or a bad thing.”

The land is owned by Hitchin Girls’ School, which inherited it from Herts County Council.

It disputes the green has been used “as of right”, and referred to an email at the inquiry sent from a football club asking to use the fields for a match.

Andrew Small, representing the school, set his case on a 40-year-old licence between the school and the old Hitchin Urban Council which set out terms of use.

But Cllr Ashley, who submitted the application for village green status in 2009, said the terms of the licence weren’t upheld.

“The main objection to this application is this licence. I think it’s quite important and could turn the decision one way or another,” he said.

“There’s nothing in correspondence since 1973 referring to this licence. That indicates to me it had been forgotten about by the county council and certainly the school was not consciously aware of it and that’s a point that’s very relevant to this case.”

Residents who spoke at the meeting said they used the site for a range of activities, including dog walking, jogging, sledging and playing sports, and had done so for years.

They called for the site to be protected.

Keith Catchpole said: “The field is like a breath of fresh air in our concreted modern lives.”

Louise Tyrell added: “It’s an absolute asset to the community. I had no idea of ownership, I’ve just taken it as a perfect green space.”

Mr Small responded by saying the school did not have an issue with residents using the site.

“There are no plans to develop,” he added.

However, village green status would afford the land protection which would make it more difficult to develop on in the future.

The inquiry continues.