'Alley war' will be determined after public inquiry

Monday 12th December 2016 8:00 am
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THE final blows in Haslemere’s ‘Alley War’ were delivered at a packed two-day public inquiry.

There was an outcry in February 2015, when a six-feet high metal fence was erected blocking the entrance from College Hill to a popular cut-through to the High Street.

Frustrated residents quickly discovered, however, they could have a battle on their hands to remove the barrier, because although the path had been used for many years, it had not been registered as a public right of way and so its obstruction was not illegal.

Fears it would be quite a struggle to discover if the historical ‘snicket’ could be legalised, proved to be correct, however, when the landowners of the small – but critical part of the shortcut to College Hill – objected to Surrey County Council’s decision in November last year to create a new public right of way footpath 604.

That meant the order would be decided at appeal.

Matters finally came to a head, when planning inspector Peter Millman opened a two-day inquiry at Haslemere Museum to hear the evidence for and against and take a final decision.

Taking an unusual step – and in a clear signal – Surrey County Council applied for costs having objected to spending around £10,000 of taxpayers money defending its decision to create a new footpath.

Applications for costs are a rarity in footpath inquiries and the request took Mr Millman by surprise.

He told the inquiry he hadn’t received an application for four years and would have to check to see if the rules had changed.

Agreeing it was an unusual move, Surrey’s barrister Trevor Ward said he hadn’t made such an application for 10 years.

Surrey received the necessary evidence of use over a period of 20 years from 64 residents, many saying they had walked it regularly for more than 40 years.

In a show of support, the application to create a new footpath was made by Haslemere Society president Robert Serman, and the town council also backed the map modification order.

Representing the objecting landowners Peter Warner and Hamish Robbie, barrister Daniel Stedman Jones said the use of the path for 20 years was “largely undisputed”, but maintained signs erected at the College Hill entrance made it clear it was private property and the use of the path was by permission of the landowners, who had now legally decided to withdraw that permission.

Nine witnesses supported Mr Ward’s case that the private signs related to a private car park accessed via the objectors’ land and could not on “any reasonable basis” refer to the alley.

Speaking on behalf of Half Moon Estate Residents’ Association, which covers Hill Road, Dene Close, Half Moon Hill, part of Park Road, The Orchard, College Hill and Museum Hill, Aine Hall said 98 per cent of residents did not believe were put up to prevent people using the alley.

Mrs Hall also revealed a private property enforcement sign had only been erected in 2010 by UK Car Park Management.

She said: “Supported by this evidence, we conclude there is no doubt these signs which state ‘private property – parking notice‘, ‘private property – enforcement notice‘ and ‘private car park‘ are clearly addressed to the drivers of vehicles.

“These signs appear to have been written to deter motorists from parking and they are silent on the matter of pedestrians.”

Many witnesses speaking in support of footpath 604 said the alley provided a safer alternative to negotiating a dangerous bend with no pavements on College Hill.

Sue Farley, principal of the former Little School nursery, in College Hill, said it was “the only safe way” to take more than 70 young children in her care to the town centre.

The inquiry was told, however, safety issues were not relevant to the creation of the footpath and that evidence could not be considered.

Summing up, Mr Stedman Jones urged the inspector to reject the application: “The objectors case is that the nature of the use to which the route has been put is incompatible with qualifying use for the purposes of the dedication of a footpath along the order route,” he said.

“The evidence in the round satisfies the proviso in the (relevant planning) section. The signs, in particular, provide sufficient evidence to negate any intention to dedicate the path to the public.

“For all these reasons and those which have been elaborated during the inquiry, the order should be refused.”

Concluding for Surrey, Mr Ward said the order should be confirmed, as it was up to the objectors to provide evidence it was clear the alley was private property and insufficient evidence had been produced to demonstrate such an intention.

He added the other landowners of the alley did not oppose the order and the alley was not blocked from the High Street.

Referring to Peter Spooner, who sold the land now owned by the objectors to them in 2014, and was called as a witness, he said: “Earlier owner Mr Spooner wasn’t bothered about the use at all, and even Mr Warner and Mr Robbie took no action against use until the erection of the fence. There is no reasonable basis or evidence to support the case.”

Campaigners now wait to hear the final verdict as to whether a popular town centre shortcut can become an official right of way.

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