Well, at the end of last year an application was made to Brighton & Hove council to register the north end of The Level as a town green. Thanks in no small part to the dogged and determined efforts of Julia Davis and Henrietta Dombey, who, when others had dropped by the wayside and lost heart, took up the challenge and, with support and advice from the Open Spaces Society, submitted an application to the Registration Officer on 21 December 2011.
And the result? A swift and summary rejection. How come? Because the Registration Officer, Hilary Woodward (a council employee) has ruled that, in her opinion, the public have always been able to use The Level ‘by right’ (i.e. in exercise of a legal right to do so), rather than ‘as of right’ (i.e. without permission, force or secrecy). [sec. 4] [See also “7.10 ‘Applications’ not duly made“.] She thus felt able to reject the application without further ado on the grounds that it wasn’t ‘duly made’, since a necessary criteria in such a registration application is that the public’s use has to have been ‘as of right’. And so, with a fifty quid solicitor’s letter, the council reckons that it’s now hurdled the final obstacle and can steam ahead with its Meister Plan. Noteworthy, indeed, that an application to a council department dated 21 December is replyed to on 30 December–an officer replying to a letter in four days, and at Christmas! Methinks Ms. Woodward had one she’d prepared earlier.
This course of action by Woodward is further evidence of how this new council is determined to have its way, even if that means denying valid and reasonable objections from members of the public that should in fairness be dealt with by an independant inquiry. The council has here been the judge, jury and defendant in a case where it is, in effect, acting as a developer attempting to build on public open land despite overwhelming, genuine public objection. It should’ve bent over backwards to be seen to be acting as fairly as possible to both applicants and any possible objectors to the application. In this case, of course, the council is the main, and probably only, objector.
The state of the ownership / trusteeship of The Level is far from clear-cut, and so whether the use by the public has been ‘as of right’ or ‘by right’ must also be similarly unclear. Therefore it must be reasonable to accept the application so that the applicants can make their case for it being ‘as of right’, rather than the council simply dismissing it out of hand. Unfortunately, as the present administration has already shown when dealing with The Level, it’s not about to behave in any other than the traditional bully-boy way that a council adopts when intent on having its way.
So, what now? It’s a difficult one. B&HC has pots of council tax lucre to pay their in-house lawyers to protect the council’s decisions from criticism and review. It’s easy for it to rule against the application, and in effect say: “Go on, what are you going to do about it now!” So, are the town green applicants now, perhaps, looking at the prospect of having to mount an expensive legal challenge in order to have this vital debate over the destiny of The Level? Watch this space, the end is not yet nigh.