Victory in Town Green battle

After more than a decade of campaigning, playing fields are declared a Town Green

CAMPAIGNERS have won a significant victory in their fight to keep Stoke Lodge playing fields open to the public.

Bristol City Council’s public rights of way and greens committee has decided to register the 23-acre site as a Town Green.

This is likely to mean that Cotham School, which uses the fields for games lessons, will have to take down the 1.5km long fence it put up in 2019 to safeguard its students. By law, town and village greens cannot be enclosed.

The campaign group We Love Stoke Lodge are delighted at the committee’s decision and have called on the school to work with them to find a way to ensure the playing fields can be used for the good of the whole community.

It is not yet known whether Cotham School will seek a Judicial Review of the decision in the High Court.

After the committee vote on June 28, the school said in a statement: “We are deeply disappointed by the decision, but nevertheless thank the committee for its consideration of this matter.  Our first priority remains ensuring the best possible educational experience for our students in a happy and secure environment, and this lies at the heart of everything we do. We will now carefully reflect on the outcome.”

At the time of going to print, Cotham School had not responded to the Voice’s request for an interview. 

Cotham School erected the 2m high fence, and restricted public access in 2019, after being granted a lease to use the field for PE by Bristol City Council.

Now, five years after they first applied for Town Green status for the site, the campaign group We Love Stoke Lodge (WLSL) has convinced the council to agree to the formal designation, which means the public will have unfettered access.

Some of the debate centred on historic use of the field – WLSL said the fields had been used by local people for decades. A previous application for Town Green status was turned down in 2016.

Since the fence was erected there have been numerous public rows between the school and campaigners, including claims of criminal damage of the fence and gates – culminating last year when the school installed covert CCTV cameras.

WLSL campaigner Helen Powell told the Voice: “We are waiting for the official designation to be registered and then expect the school to remove the fence.

“A lot depends on what approach Cotham School take – we really hope they will work with the community, so we can all make a fresh start.  We hope this will be the start of something new.”

Helen, who led the campaign with fellow resident Emma Burgess, said the battle had taken up much of their spare time, and a lot of money in legal fees.

About 40 WLSL campaigners attended the meeting of BCC’s Public Rights of Way and Greens Committee on June 28, where after a discussion six members voted in favour of Town Green status, one against and two abstentions. 

Two signs put up on either 1985 or 1986 by Avon County Council formed a major part of committee’s debate. Barristers advising the council had said these signs, warning against trespass, showed use of the playing fields was contentious.

Supporters of the school also argued that locals knew use of the land was contentious because of the previous green application and public inquiry in 2016. But locals dispute this and say the playing fields have been used for decades, with the small signs not visible to most people. 

Emma Burgess, from the campaign, told the meeting: “Thousands of kids across the UK use open public land for PE, and Ofsted and the Department for Education have repeatedly confirmed they don’t require playing fields to be fenced.”

Cotham School and Bristol City Council objected to the application. The school said the fence was needed to keep pupils safe, both from leaving school during the day and from any dog waste left on the field.

 Jo Butler, headteacher of Cotham School, said: “The landowner has made it consistently clear through signs that they object to the unfettered use of the land for the public. The school is under a statutory duty to provide sufficient outdoor space for its students. It has no other land available for this purpose.

“The school is also under very strict safeguarding duties which makes it impossible to allow the general public to use the land while its students are present. Granting this application would have very serious consequences for the operation of our school.

“It’s essential for our students, the majority of whom live in very deprived areas of Bristol in overcrowded housing with no access to green space at all. In fact the only space they have access to is the pavement outside of their homes or parks in a great state of disrepair.”

The committee was advised by a barrister that they should not base their decision on “whether public access to the land was a good thing or a bad thing”, nor the “strength of local feeling”, but instead on arcane and complex law.

The main legal question was whether locals were using the land “as of right”, meaning they did not need permission and the use of the land was not contentious. This could have been scuppered by the signs in the 1980s, but councillors decided these were too small to matter.

Liberal Democrat Councillor Andrew Varney said: “The key issue is whether the signs were sufficient to render the use of the land contentious. My conclusion is that they were not.

“Many people have used the land for decades without being aware of the signs. Stoke Lodge has numerous entrances, well worn footpaths, provision of infrastructure such as bins — and two signs erected by an extinct authority were not sufficient to render the use of the land contentious.”

Meeting report by Alex Seabrook, Local Democracy Reporting Service