Friends of Coombe Wood

Coombe Wood as a Village Green — Part One

This page gives a review of the efforts of the Friends of Coombe Wood to establish the wood as a Village Green. The information is taken from the Friend’s News Letters over the past years.

Editor’s Note: These news letters were written as events progressed. Most events described had just happened or were about to happen. I have tried to adjust the tense to present this a a summary of events now in the past.

July 2004

First, a review

The Friend’s Committee has met on eleven occasions so far.

Our prime objective has been to register the rights we have established, as local people, over the last 20 years to uninhibited, unhindered access to Coombe Wood and thus preserve such rights. To this end the Committee prepared a case for registration of Coombe Wood as an open space under the Village Green legislation and obtained well over a hundred statements to support our claim.

Our case was submitted to Essex County Council on 5th August 2003. Essex County Council carried out a preliminary review and concluded from our submission that Friends of Coombe Wood had a case for registration that they were prepared to proceed with.

Essex County Council then posted notices in the woods and notified landowners. There was no requirement for us to identify all the owners in our submission although we have obliged where we could.

Current situation (July 2004)

Essex County Council received nine objections and passed them on to us for comment. The Committee had to respond by 18th June and did so. A number of owners had not objected and those that did only seem to represent an area of about 10% of the woods. However there were claims of ownership in the woods which were still to be proven, accounting for another 10% of the woods. As far as our claim for registration was concerned the ownership of the land is immaterial, however, if those claiming ownersip objected, the weight of their objection would depend on them proving ownership.

The objectors fell into three categories:

Four objectors were concerned that their rights would be taken away from them and that the physical appearance of the land would be subject to radical change. Our response, hopefully, would provide assurances that their land would not be taken away from them, its Green Belt status would not be affected and the tree preservation orders that exist would remain intact. In fact registration would increase the protection of the woods in their present state and the preservation of Wildlife.

Three objectors/organisations had a concern that registration would impede or impact upon their practice of horse riding in the woods. We were unable to include within our Registration claims of use of the woods unless such uses can be supported in law; this is outside the scope of our registration. However we have included horse riding as one of the pastimes being carried out in the woods in our submission. We have requested in our reply that the registration authority respect any future representation being made regarding horse riding in the woods.

Two people were objecting on the grounds that they own the land and would not give up their ‘rights’. We had not established irrefutable proof of ownership at the time of our submission despite land registry searches or in requesting them to show title by deed. We wait for Essex County Council to establish what land that the objectors may own. At this stage only one objector is legally represented.

What’s next (July 2004)

That was really up to Essex County Council, as the registration authority, and to how they regard our replies to the objections. Some objectors might have withdrawn their objections when the situation is explained to them whilst others might press for a Public Inquiry. Once Essex County Council has reviewed our responses an independent chairperson would be appointed to review our claim, the objectors’ submissions and our responses. The chairperson would then advise on what proceedings should follow and what might include a Public Hearing. We were advised that this process might take two weeks or more. Our next news letter would update members on the outcome of this.

In conclusion (July 2004)

Friends of Coombe Wood was not seeking to gain any additional rights or take any away from anyone else; simply to register what the situation was at the time. It is quite likely that some landowners were unaware of the current situation and of the rights the local people have established over the last 20 years. (The submission is based on 20 years of use but we had statements going back almost 70 years).

Village Green Registration strengthens preservation of the woods without radically changing them. It might even be able to improve them, subject to the landowners’ permission, as grants might be available, through National Heritage for example.

Unless the objectors have sound legal arguments to support their objections against registration, the Committee is hopeful that a Public Inquiry would not be necessary.

April 2005

The History so Far

22nd October 2002
Formation of Friends of Coombe Wood.
First half of 2003
Meetings and communications with Castle Point Borough Council.
Attendance at lottery funding workshop establishes that funding is possible if registration is successful.

August 2003
Application to register Coombe Wood as a Village and Town Green sent to Essex County Council.
October 2004
Essex County Council organised public inquiry.
November 2004
Inspector produced report from public inquiry.
December 2004
Interested parties responded to Inspector’s report.
January 2005
Inspector produced supplementary report following the comments made by the interested parties.
February 2005
Applicant registered formal complaints on conduct of the Inspector.
Judgement made in Court of Appeal in respect of the Oxfordshire Village Green application.
March 2005
Following the Court of Appeal judgement in the Oxfordshire case the Inspector produced a further supplementary report.
Interested parties to the Coombe Wood application were invited by Essex County Council to make comment.
April 2005
The applicants in the Oxfordshire case requested permission to appeal to the House of Lords.
Expected response due to the interested parties in the Coombe Wood application by Essex County Council.

Where we are now (April 2005)

Essex County Council, who is the registration authority, would make the final decision on whether we would have a Village Green and how much of a Village Green we would have. There were two primary factors affecting this. Number one would be the recommendation made by the Inspector and number two would be the outcome of the Village Green application in Oxfordshire. The latter was at that time going before the House of Lords and concerned the end of the 20-year qualifying period, crucial in establishing a claim.

Even if Essex County Council were to make a decision we do not like, there would be strong grounds for us to request permission for a judicial review, for example, if they were to reduce the area in a way that was unacceptable to us. All these things take time and time is on our side.

We have have been keeping the Open Spaces Society fully informed and they have been supporting us in our attempt to register our Village Green in the same way as they have been supporting Oxfordshire in their application to the House of Lords.


There were a number of issues and possibilities surrounding the pond that is on Castle Point Borough Council land. Quite sensibly the Council wants one focal point with the public for the future and development of wildlife in Castle Point and would like to use the Castle Point Wildlife Group. Our chairman is a member and we have contacted them as regards an affiliated membership. Pending the outcome of that we suggest that any one with a burning interest in the pond and its future joins the Castle Point Wildlife Group whilst Friends of Coombe Wood concentrates on obtaining registration.

Friends of Coombe Wood would, however, continue to monitor developments and would be keeping members informed of them.

Notices and fencing

Many members and supporters have reported notices and fences going up. This appears regrettable but has no impact on our legal claim.

Landowners can do what they like on their land and nobody can stop them. The legal process we were going through is a long way from exhaustion and if we were successful in getting a Village Green any notices and fences erected would have to be be removed. The acts of parliament that enforces this are Section 29 of the Commons Act 1876 and Section 12 of the Enclosures Act 1857. Erecting notices or fences does not force the law down a particular route in favour of the landowners.

We must respect the notices and fences and comply with them; we have no legal right to interfere with them. However, we were conscious that some land being claimed has unproven title at this time.

October 2005

Since our news letter in April 2005 there have been some developments. As previously reported the recommendations of the Inspector to our application was subject to the outcome of the Village Green application in Oxfordshire. The Oxfordshire case was successful in being granted leave to appeal in the House of Lords, but the earliest possible date would not be until after March 2006. Another bit of news was that in 2006, a new Commons Land Bill was expected to clarify the law in respect of Town and Village Green applications and we anticipated that this would benefit the Coombe Wood application.

The main legal issues related to whether a landowner can prevent registration by fencing the land or whether an inspector can recommend an area of land substantially smaller than what was being requested within the application.

Essex County Council was unlikely to make any decision on our application until the above legal issues have been resolved and therefore it would be some considerable time before we have a final verdict. Members of Friends of Coombe Wood were notified that the AGM for 2005 would be postponed until a decision is made by the Essex County Council.

It should be noted that when our application was being processed up to the Public Hearing stage, three other Town and Village Green applications were being considered. All three applications were successful and none were constrained by the outcome of the Oxfordshire case, as it was with the Coombe Wood application. We believed our application was being stringently judged at this stage and as a result considered there was sufficient grounds for a judicial review if the current recommendations by the Inspector were not changed.

Although our questionnaire on the use of the land by local inhabitants was a six-page document, the Inspector devalued it due to the fact that he could not deduce the ‘frequency and geographical extent of the various activities alleged to have take place’. This was because the questionnaire ‘gave no indication what particular part of the woods were used’. However we then had an opportunity to update the evidence previously submitted to the inquiry, up until Essex County Council made their decision. As a result we distributed a couple of further questions to those completing the previous survey and to others. These were:

Questionnaire Part 2

The Inspector, in his recommendations, divided Coombe Wood into three distinct areas being:

Map of Areas

Land to the north of the brook - excluded for registration (A)

Land to the south of the brook - included for registration (B)

Land to the south of the brook - excluded for registration (C)

These areas were marked on an attached plan

Members were asked, when they were completing part 2 of the questionnaire, if they would indicate whether any of these areas should be excluded or included by marking the plan accordingly and returning it to us.

They were also asked, if they had been involved in using the woods with others, such as friends or groups (organised or not) indicating the number of people/children involved.

March 2006

Since the last news letter a lot had been going on regarding our application for Coombe Wood to be registered as a Village Green. The outcome of the Oxfordshire case in the House of Lords was still awaited. The additional questionnaires (doubling the original number) that we had received reinforced our evidence and we believed showed our original estimate of usage of the wood by the local inhabitants was underestimated.

We had been pursuing, with Castle Point Borough Council (CPBC), the following matters:

1. Fencing

We drew CBPC’s attention to the planning controls that we believed could be put into place to prevent fencing being erected in the woods.

2. The Lake

Discussions had been taking place in conjunction with Castle Point Wildlife Group regarding the future of the lake and possible improvements to the area. When we had an idea of what might be possible we would be consulting with members on any final plans.

3. ‘Landscaping’ at the end of Lake Drive

We brought to the attention of the Council the structural changes that appear to be taking place at the end of Lake Drive, asking them to determine if any planning laws had been broken as this land is designated Green Belt.

4. Planning Application on Bread and Cheese Hill (London Rd.)

A member of Friends of Coombe Wood brought to our attention an application for a development on the London Road opposite the woods. We raised objections against this development on the grounds that it contravenes the Council’s Green Belt policies.

We copied all of our correspondence on the above four issues to our ward councillor, Pam Challis but at this time (March 2006) we had not had any positive actions from the Council apart from some words of support from some councillors and our MP Mr Bob Spink.

We asked that if any member was aware of any other issues affecting the woods that they not only raise the matter directly with the Council, but let us know so we too can follow it up as a representative body of the neighbourhood.

Matters that we were currently progressing with Essex County Council include the following:

1. The Bridleway

The Council was investigating possible encroachment on the public bridleway.

2. Tree Preservation Orders (TPO)

We had recently received a copy of the Tree Preservation Orders applicable to Coombe Wood. We understand Essex County Council applies TPOs, but compliance is the responsibility of Castle Point District Council. Many of our members have brought tree felling to our attention, and FOC has brought this to the attention of both Councils to determine if any laws have been broken.

3. Village Green Registration

Additional information including the added questionnaires has been submitted. Before ECC make a decision on the Village Green registration, we requested the basis of the appointment of the inspector and took up a number of legal issues ensuring that all of the land in our application is registered. This involved the Committee in a painstaking amount of work and research.

Two Final Points – Appeal in House of Lords & New Commons Bill

Our chairman dusted down his ermines as he prepared to attend the House of Lords Hearing on the Oxfordshire case towards the end of March. This provided us with a greater insight into and understanding of outstanding legal issues relating to our case, which assisted us in our furtherance of the Village Green registration. In addition, a new Commons Bill currently going through the final parliamentary stages sought to clarify some of the existing legal loopholes, and the new bill, in its current form, could assist our registration application when enacted into law later this year (2006).

July 2006

1. Planning application CPT/694/05/FUL

Friends of Coombe Wood objected to this application to build a multi-development on green belt land immediately opposite to the woods. If this application had been successful then the plot holders in the woods might have been tempted to apply for development in the woods. Fortunately the application was rejected.

2. Fencing

To help protect the woods from further fencing, Friends of Coombe Wood approached the Council to implement planning restrictions on an area that includes the woods. After some considerable effort the Council have agreed to issue an Article 4 Direction: fencing and other changes not normally subject to planning approval would then require the Council’s approval. We have asked the Council to obtain Secretary of State approval and the Council confirmed it would be issued in July. Existing fencing and its legal right to remain would depend on the outcome of our Village Green application.

3. House of Lords verdict on the Oxfordshire case

At last the House of Lords verdict has been delivered. We were very pleased with the outcome as were the Village Green people in Oxfordshire. After a High Court verdict, followed by court of appeal and the House of Lords verdicts the people in Oxfordshire can now proceed with their Village Green application. For those who are interested full details of the judgement are available on the Internet.

In summary the impact on our application was as follows.

  • If the Coombe Wood application were successful then any fencing erected in the woods since August 2003 would have no legal status and could be removed under existing acts of parliament.
  • The then current recommendation by the inspector for our application to only register part of the land was being reviewed. The House of Lords has made it clear that a reduction in the area of land to be registered must be fair and without prejudice. In the Oxfordshire case the applicant wanted a reduction which the objectors agreed to and therefore there was no prejudice in doing so to either party. In our case we were strongly opposing any reduction and would be asking the ECC to act within the terms as laid out by the House of Lords.
  • The inspector took the view in our application that inaccessible areas of land were a reason for exclusion. The extent of inaccessible land in the Oxfordshire case was far greater than in ours and therefore we expected that his justification to remove some of the land would now no longer be valid, if it were totally based on being inaccessible.

Essex County Council had not indicated how long they need to make a decision or whether interested parties could make further representations. We have submitted further questionnaires and evidence to Essex County Council to support our application.

Whilst there was a lot of good news to report, we also knew that many hurdles (and legal battles to be fought) remained — notably with ECC and objecting land owners — before we can achieve our objectives.

May 2007

Article 4 Direction

Following much communication and several meetings with CPBC, an Article 4 Direction was issued in April 2007, and subsequently ratified by the Secretary of State’s office with a permanent stature (sic). The Article 4 Direction over Coombe Wood stipulates that any additional fencing, including repairs and renovations, and the siting of mobile homes requires prior CPBC Planning approval. In our discussions with CPBC, it was confirmed that photographic evidence was held on record, as well as that evidence provided by FOC, and that the Council would welcome any information from the local community as to any suspected violations of the Article 4 Direction.

In response to our enquiries as to why the area covered by the Article 4 Direction differed somewhat to the Village Green application area, the Council advised that whilst some area in the north of the woods had been excluded, a larger area had been covered in the south of the woods. CPBC further advised that a second Article 4 Direction over the north area of the wood would be introduced at a later date, and we will continue to monitor this with CPBC.

Other actions under consideration with CPBC included:

  1. CPBC action to maintain proper and rightful access to Coombe Wood via Lake Drive.
  2. A partnership arrangement that would enable the necessary expertise to manage the woodlands. FOC would consult with appropriate national charities in order to form an acceptable partnership.
  3. The removal of bridleway fencing within the land allocated to the bridleway. FOC was pursuing this matter with Essex County Council to achieve the desired result.

Village Green Application

An enormous amount of time and effort has been expended on the continuing review, discussion and correspondence with ECC. We have been notified that ECC has:

  1. Further consulted with the Inspector on the way forward, having received our additional evidence.
  2. Advised that they expected to issue a report to the D & R Committee at the end of June 2007.

We pushed strongly to be given sight of this report prior to the D & R Committee meeting, in order to make further representations if we consider this necessary. In this regard, our Chairman attended a Judicial Review seminar that provided valuable information for the possible next stages of the application.

July 2007

Finally Coombe Wood registered as a Village Green

At a meeting of the ECC Development and Regulatory Committee on the 29th June 2007, the Committee agreed to register approximately 60% of Coombe Wood as a Village Green in line with the Public Enquiry Inspector’s and the County solicitor’s recommendation. The registration of Coombe Wood Village Green would be ratified by the D & R committee in writing, subject of course, to any appeals or objections.

Whilst delighted to have secured this Village Green status, the committee was somewhat disappointed that, in spite of all their submissions on the levels of local inhabitants’ usage over all of the application site, and strong legal arguments supported by the House of Lords rulings, the D & R committee members (including our local councillor Bill Dick) did not seek any clarification from the County Solicitor on any of the relevant issues. The only question asked by members of that Committee was “what does VG stand for?”

We have pursued with the D & R Committee Chairman this apparent failure to address any of the significant issues. We have, as well, obtained a professional legal opinion (at Barrister level) about pursuing the case for a judicial review.

So, whilst the Committee felt some sense of achievement in the outcome reached so far, they have not given up hope of further progress in obtaining Village Green status over all of the application site.

This part of Coombe Wood has now been entered into the Village Green register (as item 245).