Guidance to schools on balancing community relationships when expansion and development is opposed.
Community groups can be a huge asset for schools: parents will get stuck into fundraising, local orchestras and sports clubs will rent rooms and equipment, local and national businesses can provide additional resources. However, community groups can also club together and make a powerful case for preventing development. If a school needs to expand, construct a new sports hall or wants dispose of excess land to a developer then this can be an issue.
The two main pieces of legislation that can be used are the Commons Act 2006 and the Localism Act 2011.
Town or Village Greens (Commons Act 2006)
- Once land is registered as a town or village green, it cannot be built upon.
- The Commons Act 2006 was revolutionary as it created a break with the past and permitted the creation of new town and village greens where:
- a significant number of the inhabitants of a locality or neighbourhood have used the land in question
- as of right
- for lawful sports and pastimes
- for a period of at least 20 years.
- This means that if people have used land for over 20 years for activities such as dog walking and formal or informal games, then it could be vulnerable to an application to register it as a town or village green.
- The ability to create new town or village greens has been an incredibly potent weapon for people who wish to stop any building in their area. It has been used to prevent development not only on stereotypical traditional village greens but also on such areas as waste ground by a railway line and a long stretch of beach.
- This is generally not a problem for a school's core premises as safeguarding concerns mean that the building and grounds are not open to the public. But schools may have historic land that is not used as part of the core premises; or they may have grounds adjacent to the buildings which are not fenced for a number of reasons. It is these areas that can be vulnerable.
- Landowners (schools included!) have often tried to manage such a situation by using "no access without permission" signs. These can be very effective in preventing a town or village greens application but it is easy for ambiguity to creep into such signs, particularly where the relevant landowner is trying not to be too aggressive. A number of signs since 2006 have failed to be clear enough and unless specialist legal advice is taken, it can be unwise to rely upon such signs.
**September 2016 update** – read the latest case here where land next to a school was found to be a village green
There has been a feeling that perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in protecting the rights of local people and this combines with the political will to encourage development. So, in 2013, further changes were introduced in the Growth and Infrastructure Act 2013 which prevent an application for town or village greens being made:
- when an application for planning permission is first publicised
- for land identified for potential development in the local or neighbourhood plans and
- where planning application is made for a nationally significant infrastructure project.
These "trigger events" are not permanently effective – the development has to actually happen. If it becomes apparent that it is not going to happen, an application for a town or village greens registration can still be made. However, it is a very useful tool for anyone who wishes to develop land to have in their tool box.
A landowner's statement is very useful if a school can be certain that he can prove that there has not been 20 years' use of the school land in question. If the school deposits the statement with the local authority, it will prevent any further time accruing and will therefore prevent the necessary 20 years' use.
Asset of Community Value (Localism Act 2011)
Under the Localism Act 2011, community groups have the right to ask the local authority to list land and/or premises as an asset of community value. This was originally envisaged as right to buy but is, in fact, now watered down and only gives the community group a right to bid for an asset of community value.
The legislation affects any land or buildings that are considered to further the social wellbeing or social interests of the local community and typically involve pubs, libraries, village shops, scout huts, cinemas, community centres and playing fields.
Any listing as an asset of community value is only relevant if land is being disposed of by way of a freehold sale or the assignment of a long lease. Listing can delay a sale or assignment by up to six months to give the community group a chance to get is bid together. The landowner disposing of the property is under no obligation to accept the community group's bid, so it can all feel rather frustrating for the people involved.
This is an emerging area of law and most cases involve pubs. However, there have been a couple of cases involving schools:
- Wareham Middle School in Dorset had its playing fields listed as an asset of community value. Luckily for it, these were de-listed on appeal but time and money was spent on the whole legal process which is not something a school wants to face.
- Idsall School in Shropshire had its playing fields listed as an asset of community value. The appeal was dismissed and the playing fields are still listed.
What this means for schools
- If you are intending to build or dispose of land, try to involve community groups so that you get them on your side. Explain what you are doing and the benefit to the school.
- If you do intend to sell to a developer, then ensure the developer can live with any delay if an application is made to list the land/building as an asset of community value.
- You may want to consider whether you should be making a landowner's statement in respect of land that could be open to a town and village greens application. You should also consider tying it into a similar statement in relation to any rights of way but that is too long a subject for this bulletin.
- You could consider erecting signs along the "keep out" line although this does have the disadvantage of potentially alerting applicants.
If you would like to discuss any aspect of this article further, please contact Emma Ridge or any member of the Wrigleys' Education team on 0113 244 6100.
You can also keep up to date by following Wrigleys Education team on Twitter here
The information in this article is necessarily of a general nature. Specific advice should be sought for specific situations. If you have any queries or need any legal advice please feel free to contact Wrigleys Solicitors