In the Greenfields recreation ground in Shrewsbury, a yoga class is wrapping up while, nearby, people walk their dogs and children play before school. It’s a peaceful scene … but away from the park a fierce battle has been waging between residents and the council, and it is now heading for the supreme court.
In 2017, a section of the park was sold by Shrewsbury town council to a developer for high-end housing, but without consulting the community or even advertising the proposed sale, despite there being a legal requirement to do so.
“It’s like someone coming along and selling off a part of your garden to build and not checking if it was theirs to sell off, or asking you about it,” said Marion Curtis, part of the campaigning Greenfields Community Group, made up of 300 residents. “That’s what made me really angry.”
The supreme court hearing in December could also have an impact on local authorities across the country. Councils are making up for shortfalls in government funding – and attempting to meet the demand for new houses – by selling off to developers pockets of land meant for the public. This is happening at an alarming rate: it is estimated that nearly half of public land in Britain has been sold off since the 1970s, and that more than 4,000 public spaces and buildings are being sold off every year in England alone.
The Greenfields land was first bought by the local authority in 1926 for £1,000 and held in trust for community use. Through a freedom of information request, Peter Day, who has been leading the campaign, was able to get hold of the deeds to the park.
The documents, which have been seen by the Observer, show that the area in question was part of the wider park – rather than “land adjacent to”, which is how the council describes the area. It was transferred to Shrewsbury town council in 2010 during the reorganisation of local authorities.
During the second world war, the area was used for the Dig For Victory campaign and turned into temporary allotments. After that, the area was simply never reincorporated back into the main park and was left to go wild.
In 2019, a judicial review found the local authority “failed to take reasonable steps” to establish before the sale whether the site was part of the recreation ground, which it “very likely” was. Nevertheless, Mrs Justice Lang concluded that the public rights over the site could not be enforced on the developer.
In 2020, external auditor PKF Littlejohn Ltd found “serious governance failings” in the sale of the public space. Amanda Spencer, the council’s deputy town clerk, said Shrewsbury town council takes the matter very seriously. The council set up an independent investigation, led by Michael Redfern QC, into the sale of the land.
Published last month, the report makes uncomfortable reading for the council. Redfern found “powerful and irrefutable” evidence that the area sold off was always part of the park. He said the town council “raised the drawbridge and bunkered down”, refusing to engage with residents and seeking sanctuary in the mistaken belief that the area wasn’t part of the park “beyond any period that could possibly be regarded as reasonable”.
“We are unable to comment in detail until we carefully consider its findings,” Spencer said. A public meeting is due to be held on Wednesday.
Day says it has been a “David and Goliath” struggle to get to this stage but the campaign is now bigger than them. “Every month, I get emails from groups up and down the country who are beginning similar battles who want to know how we have got as far as we have,” he says.
“Our case could set a national precedent, one way or another. Either we lose, and local authorities see that it’s OK to sell off parks or sections of parks – or, if we win, councils may rethink plans they have to sell off similar pockets of public land. That is what is at stake. It’s not just about our local community any more.”