Monday, September 20, 2021

GUEST POST Saving Church Langton's open space from the Diocese of Leicester

Anthony Lawton on a Leicestershire village's campaign to defend its only open space.

I know far too little about my mother who, a single mother after being widowed when I was three, died herself when I was eighteen. I do recall she was a self-professed liberal and Liberal, committed to being active in the community. She also brought me up within the Church of England. 

However, although the impact of her liberalism and community action endures, fifty years on from teenage confirmation my church going days are long gone. A year of bewildering and stubborn behaviour by leaders and institutions in the Diocese of Leicester has seriously eroded what little faith that endured still, or at least in the church hierarchy beyond the parish.

For decades the grass, Thorpe Path Field and The Bucket, has been the one accessible open space within our village boundaries in rural Church Langton in Leicestershire. A public footpath crosses the land. There villagers of all ages walk and talk, congregate and play, and exercise dogs of many types and sizes in ways they cannot, despite appearances, in the privately owned farming land all around.

Donated, I believe, by the Revd William Hanbury to his charity founded in the 1750s to pursue grandiose plans for a national centre of learning to rival Oxford and Cambridge, the field was for many years part of the playing fields of the local school founded in the 1870s. In the early 2000s it passed from the stewardship of the Hanbury Charity to fellow charity, the Leicester Diocesan Board of Education (LDBE), in an asset-swap to facilitate the building of a new Langton Community Hall next to the school

LDBE trustees want to realise the value they think the field has as building land, despite it being formally designated ‘Open Space for Sport and Recreation’ by Harborough District Council, and despite the council leader asserting he sees no prospect of successful evasion of the implied responsibilities. To date, two planning applications and an appeal to the National Planning Inspector have been vigorously and successfully opposed by the community.

The Board of Education’s leaders have stated on the record, several times, that they have no intention to renew planning applications for the “foreseeable future”. The Board professes in its vision statement to work “with” local communities. Yet the it has in the last couple of years sought to exclude villagers from the field — save for access to the public footpath — against the wishes of the local community, in order to seek to graze livestock, without disclosing how this helps advance their long-term interests. 

Trustees have rejected all offers from villagers and the Parish Council to rent the land for village recreational use until such time as the Board is successful, if ever it is, in winning building permission. Some twenty four trustees, including the Bishop of Leicester, have resisted all the supportive entreaties of the local conservative MP, local district and county councillors, the leader of Harborough District Council, even the church’s own lay incumbent and the local parochial church council.

Despite numerous requests, and formal complaints to trustees and the Charity Commissioners, still no-one outside the charity has been given a clear, persuasive reason why the Board persists so stubbornly to reject community offers. One of the two formal objects of LDBE is always to embody the principles and doctrines of the CoE. I can recall no principle or doctrine which favours being untransparent, so disrespectful of local community interests, and so stubborn.

We "need to pray passionate prayers to change stubborn situations," wrote one local Reverend in a regular church column in the local paper. Characterising myself now as an unbeliever, and ever-influenced by my mother’s liberalism, I prefer to put my faith rather in the power of collective community action.

Mind you, the Diggers who in the 1600s actively opposed enclosures by the church and other landowners, believed in both prayer and action, in pursuit of their belief that "no man has any right to buy and sell the earth for private gain". 

That may be a belief too far for many. However the not-for-financial-profit Charity Board of Education trustees are stewards and custodians of the land which the board holds in trust for public benefit, not private gain. They should not be so focused upon profit-maximising.

I persist in believing they might be brought to their senses about their own diocese-wide interests, as well as the interests of the local community, by concerted community action, including the lobbying of political representatives of all persuasions and none. 

We will as committed active citizens continue actively and insightfully to collaborate to change this “stubborn situation”. But, inspired as I am by the Diggers and mindful of the local Reverend’s advice, I have said publicly I might just try some "passionate prayers" too.

You can follow Church Langton's Keep Our Open Space Open campaign on Twitter..

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