As recently as May 4, it seemed that the long and often fractious legal dispute over the status of six fields in the Green Belt at Ashton Vale was finally coming to, well, if not quite the end, at least the beginning of the end.
On that date, Bristol City Council said it would no longer be contesting the judicial review of its decision not to register the northern part of those fields as a Town Green.
Their press release stated that the Judicial Review was “seeking to have the High Court instruct the City Council to consider afresh the non-registration of the Northern part of the site as a Town or Village Green, by referring back evidence relating to this matter to an independent expert inspector to consider, and make recommendations accordingly to the council committee which will then decide the matter afresh”.
In the release the Council confirmed that it had decided “to cease to contest the legal challenge, and therefore accept these outcomes should happen forthwith”.
The press release also accepted that the council should “ immediately register the narrow strip at the North-East side of the site [shown in this map in orange] as Town or Village Green land, without any further reference to the independent inspector, or to the council committee” and that this should also happen forthwith.
This latter piece of land – “the Silbury Strip”- was the main topic of my October 2011 article on this website.
In that article I argued that the Council had, for whatever reason, failed to implement the decision of the Public Rights of Way and Greens (PROWG) committee correctly by failing to register the full extent of the land that had been decided should be registered as a Town Green.
Specifically, they had failed to fully register the land referred to as “C” in the plan presented to the PROWG committee on June 16.
This plan is quite clearly a later version of the s.106 plan that accompanied the Ashton Vale Stadium development. The main difference between the two maps is that in the PROWG version, the Town Green area has been divided into three distinct areas of land marked A, B and C, each of which is delineated by the addition of black lines to the s.106 map. These black lines do not appear on any other plan.
However, despite this, the officer responsible for registering B and C as Town Green land registered a smaller extent of land than that delineated by the black lines in the PROWG plan.
When this reduced registration was challenged by the applicants, the officer concerned gave a statement to the October 6 PROWG committee in which he stated that the plan “shows the three coloured areas, together with a key. These were area A (yellow), area B (pink) and area C (white). …. The land to be registered, and which in the opinion of the officer satisfied the statutory test, was that comprising areas B and C to the South of B. Area A, coloured yellow, was recommended not to be registered”.
No explanation of what the purpose of the black lines were if not to delineate A, B and C and no recognition that if indeed areas A, B and C were identified by specific blocks of colour, that left two areas on the plan coloured blue whose Town Green status had been left undetermined by the committee.
The explanation given was clearly a flawed attempt to re-interpret the committee decision to explain away the fact that a different extent of land was registered post-committee, for reasons unknown but possibly related to the requirements of the Ashton Vale to Temple Meads BRT scheme.
Therefore, the May 4 press release, with its apparent acceptance that the Silbury Strip should have been registered, along with its recognition that the additional evidence that was relied upon to recommend the non-registration of the Northern part of the Ashton Vale fields should be placed in front of an independent inspector, appeared to offer the opportunity to finally start the process towards a final resolution of the Ashton Vale saga.
Unfortunately, it has become clear that in terms of indicating the future intentions of the Council, statements on the Council website are apt to have an usefulness equivalent to the provision of bicycles for fish.
It now appears that despite publicly stating that it will not be contesting the Judicial Review, and despite having missed the relevant deadlines for filing critical documents, the council is nevertheless now attempting to perform a U-turn in regards to its publicly stated intentions on the Council website.
Contrary to its acceptance, as stated on its own website, that the Silbury Strip should be registered as Town Green “without any further reference to the independent inspector, or to the council committee”, the Council is now apparently retracting from this position.
Such an order to register land as Town Green can only be implemented lawfully if the council determines that the original intention of the PROWG was to indeed register the land in question and the council is now insisting that there is in fact doubt as to whether this was indeed the intention.
In support of this, the council has, within the last 48 hours, apparently introduced an alternative explanation for why the Silbury Strip was not registered, an explanation which has never been previously offered, or mentioned in public, prior to now.
The council has also tried to retract from its position of placing the “additional evidence” in front of an independent inspector, suggesting instead that the council be free to choose an alternative method of assessing the validity of the evidence, presumably one that does not necessarily involve an independent inspector.
As a result, it now looks increasingly likely as this goes to press, that unless there is yet another U-turn by the Council, there will indeed be a court case next week, despite the Council as Defendant having issued a press release a month ago stating that it was intending to withdraw from the case.
What, in the absence of any detailed filing of grounds, evidence or even a skeleton argument by the Defendant, the court will actually be asked to adjudicate on, is, at the moment, a matter of pure conjecture.