In the year 1179, during the reign of King Henry II, Hugh de Puiset (Bishop of Durham and later the Chief Justiciar of England) granted the first Charter to the city of Durham. Burgesses freed from various duties and tolls due to the Bishop became “Freemen”. To this day, 842 years later, there are still eight guilds or companies of Freemen and they play an important role in the civic life of the city. One of their rights is a registered right of common over land in Durham city centre called The Sands, which extends to almost 3ha in total, namely a right to graze 50 sheep, 20 cows, 10 horses and 10 goats. In actual fact, the Freemen have waived this right for a finite period in return for payments.
On 1 April 2019, planning permission was granted to Durham County Council (“DCC”) for its new HQ building. The approved plans show that 1,675m² of The Sands is to be used for a members’ car park together with various water tanks. As a consequence, DCC applied to the Secretary of State for de-registration of that part of The Sands as registered common land and the registration as common land of 1.84ha of grassland elsewhere in the city. The Secretary of State appointed Edward Cousins BA BL LLM, author of Gadsden & Cousins on Commons and Greens, to determine the application. There was a public inquiry over several days in July 2021. The application was opposed throughout by the Freemen, the City of Durham Parish Council, the City of Durham Trust, the Open Spaces Society, the St Nicholas Community Forum, the Durham Markets Company and others.
By way of a decision dated 11 October 2021, Inspector Cousins has granted DCC’s application. He accepted its submissions to the effect that the proposal would not adversely affect the interests of the Freemen, that the “neighbourhood” is the area of the Parish Council (such that the release land and the replacement land are both within it), that the benefits to some local inhabitants will offset the minimal adverse effect on the interests of other residents, that there are no nature conservation or landscape issues and that the overall effect of the proposed exchange would be positive.
Stephen Whale of Landmark Chambers successfully represented DCC throughout the application process and at the public inquiry.
For a copy of the decision, click here.