December ’23 latest
Having Singlers Marsh registered as an official ‘Village Green’ would mean that the entirety of Singlers Marsh would be protected from development, remaining as it is today for public recreation. Although it is a Local Nature Reserve and a Local Wildlife Site, these designations do not provide much protection.
Not only did the Inspector dismiss them publicly during the Local Plan process, but a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed that WHBC already have a Memorandum of Understanding with a developer to sell off part of the southern side, with well-placed rumours suggesting a value of over £1m. Somewhat astonishingly, the new Council Leader has confirmed to us that WHBC will prioritise the commercial value of the land over its environmental value.
The developer and WHBC are objecting to the Village Green registration. The developer’s motivation is obvious, but WHBC’s reasons have been more opaque. The officers have trotted out a long list of reasons to object, none of which appear to have been checked against the reality of how Village Greens actually work. We know from FOI requests that WHBC has never sought an external expert opinion on the issue. Our clear understanding (based on expert and legal advice) is that all the activities that currently take place on the land would carry on unaffected.
Earlier this year, WHBC boiled its list of objections down to three core reasons: that the land is fine as it is; that there would be a clash with its environmental management; and, that it is duty-bound to object. The first point is obviously highly subjective, and community groups tell us they feel it is poorly managed at present. Moreover, there would be no changes if it becomes a Village Green. The second point is undermined by the many other Nature Reserves and Wildlife Sites around the country that have already become Village Greens, lists of which we have supplied. The third point is negated by the actions of other councils, who have voluntarily registered their green spaces as Village Greens.
The real reason seems to be WHBC’s desire to be able to sell part of Singlers Marsh at a profit if a development opportunity arises. Its leader, Cllr Zukowskyj, confirmed as much in an email where he confirmed that there were no policy reasons for objecting to the application (ie the environmental protections don’t amount to much), but that WHBC “is obliged by law to maintain best value” and “not to object may adversely affect future decisions with a fiduciary bearing.”
WHBC’s desire to profit from a sale of the land might be set against the fact that it was originally bought with ratepayers’ money in the 1960s by the then-existing Welwyn Rural District Council, which then gifted it for free to WHBC (or WHDC as it then was) in the 1974 council reorganisation.
There is possibly a window of opportunity to influence WHBC at this point, now that the Local Plan has been adopted. With no development proposals currently allowed for the sites around Singlers Marsh, and with the land valued on WHBC’s books at zero (according to another FOI request), commonsense could allow a voluntary registration at this point. However, the new leader is taking an entrenched viewpoint on this. We are continuing to find ways to encourage this, and we have received public support from both our MP (Grant Shapps) and from Andrew Lewin (the Labour candidate at the next parliamentary election).
If WHBC can be persuaded to pause its opposition, seek expert advice on the implications (or otherwise) of the land becoming a Village Green and then make a voluntary registration, we will all be saved a lot of work and money. The alternative is to continue with the public inquiry, which began in November 2022 but which has been paused ever since due to legal arguments. WHBC has so far spent over £16,000 on legal representation at the inquiry, and we expect it will spend over £100,000 if the inquiry goes the distance. We fail to see why this is a better option for anyone than taking professional expert advice from (eg) the Open Spaces Society and considering a new course of action.
The Village Green application is made in the name of WPAG but is being co-ordinated by an alliance of WPAG, the Parish Council, Friends of the Mimram, and local residents associations. The alliance calls itself the Singlers Marsh Action Group. It has raised funds from the community to cover its legal costs at the inquiry, and these are stewarded by WPAG which – as a registered charity – files annual accounts and also benefits from Gift Aid top-up. The VG funds are ringfenced within the WPAG accounts. Total funds raised to date are £15,300, with a further £13,000 pledged but not yet collected. The legal costs to date have been £8,700, leaving £6,600 of cash reserves (plus the pledged amounts).
Without a change of heart by WHBC, the application will be determined by the county council. Having determined that our application has merit, they appointed an external barrister to run an independent inquiry process. Our legal costs are being spent on a barrister to represent us at the inquiry, and we have chosen one who specialises in village green and common land law. We occasionally also use a firm of solicitors who specialise in environmental issues, but SMAG does most of the work as volunteers. The help of these professionals has been invaluable, and they believe we have a “very convincing” case.
The inquiry has been delayed throughout 2023 by legal arguments about the role of its inspector. He initially made a ruling that we believed was unlawful, and had to make legal threats to get it reversed. Though he is supposed to be independent of all the parties, we were given reason to believe he had been advising one of the parties on the conduct of the inquiry. We asked to see the correspondence, but were refused. However, an FOI request produced almost all of it, and it seems to show a clear conflict of interest. Very disappointingly, the county council’s legal team are refusing to act on this, and we are currently considering our options.
WPAG has waited throughout the year to get this resolved and learn the dates for the next stage of the process, while all the time hoping that WHBC would review their position and thus make the whole inquiry unnecessary. We are continuing to explore further options.
If the inquiry does restart in the new year, we will need to raise further funds to cover our upcoming legal costs. We are extremely grateful to everyone who has already donated. Smaller donations can be made online via www.justgiving.com/campaign/save-singlers-marsh, and larger donations can be discussed by contacting SMAG via email at . The JustGiving site will handle GiftAid automatically, and we can manually process any direct donations. At the end of the process, any unused funds will be returned pro rata to their donors (where the donors have identified themselves to us), and the rest will be ringfenced for future work on the Local Plan.
Applications have been made to register Singlers Marsh as a Village Green. This would give it a much higher level of protection from any development than the current Local Nature Reserve designation. – now and for generations to come.
The application was supported by over 1,000 local residents. However Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council (WHBC) and a developer objected. So the registering authority, Herts County Council (HCC) proposed a Public Inquiry to advise their decision over the several knotty legal issues involved.
(There are more details of the background and some of the legal issues involved in the November ’22 update below).
A preliminary meeting was held with HCC’s chosen Inspector (a barrister) attended by WHBC’s barrister (a King’s Counsel) and the barrister for the developer. Given the intricacies of the legal issues we too needed a barrister. Our thanks to Welwyn Parish Council and Welwyn Parish Plan Group who helped to fund him to this stage.
At the meeting the Inspector made some fairly contentious directions which did not follow case-law, so we challenged them. Last week HCC eventually conceded this, but this has all taken time.
The next stage is likely to be a 2-day Preliminary Hearing at the end of March, where legal issues and the definition of the locality involved will be resolved, following written submissions. This will obviously need legal preparation as well as representation at the Hearing.
Assuming all goes well, this will be followed by the Inquiry itself, probably three months or so later. The length of the Inquiry is dependent on the extent that the legal issues can be resolved at the Preliminary hearing and the number of witnesses who testify. The more that do, the stronger our case, but equally the more days it takes and the more expensive it becomes. Current thinking is that it could be 7 days.
So we estimate that our legal costs may well be around £40,000 for which we need to fundraise. If you are able to help, please visit our JustGiving website here.
The advice we have received from our barrister about this niche area of law has already been invaluable. If we do not manage to get enough money to fund the barrister, we would represent ourselves, but this will give us a much lower chance of success
We have asked WHBC to explain why they are opposing this application, given the strength of local support for it. The proposal to develop housing on both sides of Welwyn Cemetery and drive a road across part of Singlers Marsh to access them, is no longer in the current version of the Local Plan. So what is the reason? Especially as they have spent at least £7,000 so far on their King’s Counsel. They could very well spend £100,000 in legal costs by the end. And HCC could well spend the same. A total of £200,000 funded by us, the taxpayers to stop something that would benefit our community!
So if you would like to support the case for getting greater protection for Singlers Marsh for generations to come, please donate on the JustGiving page.
If you would like to be kept up to date with the latest developments, please send an email to
Fundraising – and where does the money go?
We need to fundraise to cover the costs of our legal representation, which could cost around £40,000.
These fees would provide for our barrister’s time. He is a specialist in Village Green law, and what was evident from the Pre-Inquiry Meeting was the importance of his experience in arguing our case from a legal standpoint against the objectors’ barristers. If we attempted to do this without a barrister, it is clear that our chance of success would be much reduced. He has been very accommodating so far, and we value his contribution highly.
We can take advantage of WPAG’s charitable status to boost all private donations using the Gift Aid scheme. A JustGiving page has been created for smaller donations. We would like to handle larger donations directly as this avoids having to pay JustGIving’s commission and Gift Aid will still be available.
All money donated will be ring-fenced within WPAG’s accounts for the Singlers Marsh legal costs. WPAG is a registered charity, its accounts are audited every year, and it has three active trustees who keep a close eye on its affairs.
If you would like to make a donation directly or would like more information, please email us at .
Thank you for your help.
Getting Singlers Marsh registered as a Village Green will give it much greater protection than the Local Nature Reserve status it currently has. Both can exist together. So we submitted a Village Green application in 2020. (For more information about the background to this, see further down this page).
Over 1000 people completed a questionnaire about their usage of the Marsh to support the application. This level of support is much higher than is usual for these applications, and shows how central the land is to our community.
Given the substantial local support on the one hand, and that there are two objectors (WHBC who own the land and Bayards, a developer who wants to build 200+ houses around the land) on the other hand, Herts County Council decided that there should be a non-statutory Public Inquiry to recommend for/against granting Village Green status. This was the expected path for this application.
There are two main issues to prove, and they are both surrounded by legalities:
(a) That Singlers Marsh has been used continuously without hindrance for over 20 years for recreational and pleasure purposes (formally: “lawful sports and pastimes”)
(b) That it has been used ‘as of right’ (where permission to access it is assumed) and not ‘by right’ (where permission to access the marsh has been granted by someone else).
These last two legal phrases sound very similar, but they mean opposite things and there is case law that proves it in both directions! Both WHBC and Bayards have been represented by senior barristers to argue over this since the beginning, so we also need to have knowledgeable and wily legal representation.
HCC appointed a barrister as the Inquiry’s Inspector, and the pre-inquiry meeting was eventually held on 3rd November. The purpose of this meeting was to iron out any major technical legal issues, as well as to set a framework and possible date for the Inquiry itself. However, in practice, it wasn’t to prove so simple.
At the meeting, the WHBC barrister argued that the whole application should be discarded there and then, as the Marsh had been closed for five months in 2001 due to the Foot & Mouth outbreak. The Inspector discarded this argument, though it may well be revisited later in the process. However, whether the past use of the Dog Fouling Act, and/or the fact that Singlers Marsh is a Local Nature Reserve, imply that there is implicit ‘permission to use’ the Marsh remain contentious issues. As does the allowed definition of the “locality” from where people come from to use the land (which could have a substantial bearing on the evidence that we deploy at the Inquiry).
However, based on our legal advice, we remain confident of our case on all these points. However, the Inspector now wants an additional Pre-Inquiry Meeting just to argue these highly technical legal issues (at extra cost to all the parties). Assuming our application survives this, he would then have the full Inquiry, which might last seven more days, and which would not take place until well into next year.
So we are now at the stage where we are gathering witnesses who are prepared to testify about their usage of the Marsh at the Inquiry. We are looking for a diverse range of people – young and old, long-time or recent users, be they dog walkers, artists or kite-flyers (or anything else).
We will be updating this webpage as the application progresses, so check back here in future to find out how things are developing.
Singlers Marsh is designated as both a Local Nature Reserve and a Local Wildlife Site, but unfortunately this does not stop it being used for development.
Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council (WHBC) currently hold plans from a developer to build a new dual-lane bridge across the River Mimram, taking a slice off Singlers Marsh to widen the road to access potentially 240 new houses which would fill the fields and completely surround the cemetery.
Of course there needs to be more houses in the wider area, but Welwyn has already grown by 33% in the last 20 years. In the last 5 years alone, Welwyn has taken on 9 times the number of new houses compared to the rest of the WHBC area, based on our share of the population. Other villages have taken much less: Brookmans Park – 5 times, Cufley – 3 times and Welham Green level. Is this fair? Let alone overwhelming the village’s roads, school and surgery, which haven’t been expanded even for the growth over the past 20 years.
Getting Singlers Marsh registered as a ‘Village Green’ would better protect it from any development now and in the future.
This requires getting evidence from a significant number of local users (ideally at least 5% of the local area) that they have have had continuous, unfettered access to the Marsh for at least the last 20 years.
WPAG took over and fronted the application, supported by the Singlers Marsh Action Group and WPC.
Following the campaign, evidence was gathered from over 1000 people (10% of Welwyn Parish), schools, organisations and of course the Festival. The oldest usage being 70 years. The Evidence summary and all the original questionnaires were presented to Herts County Council on 12th October. HCC manage the whole process and will ultimately decide the issue.
Having decided to go to a Public Inquiry this process could take one or even two years. So we will let you know progress.
The benefits of Village Green status
Registration of land as a Village Green is likely to prevent development.
It means that all the recreational and leisure activities which have taken place on the Marsh over the years can continue in the years to come
It becomes is a criminal offence to undertake any act which interrupts the use or enjoyment of a green as a place for exercise and recreation or to cause any damage to the green.
It is deemed to be a public nuisance and therefore, an offence, to enclose or encroach on a green, or interfere with, disturb or build on a green, unless this is done “with a view to the better enjoyment of such town or village green.”
Village Greens may also be subject to any registered rights of common land. So the Commons Act 1876 makes it a criminal offence to ‘damage or encroach on it’ or to ‘interfere with the public’s recreational enjoyment’.
Throughout the process we have received very positive support from many individuals and organisations. So thank you for your time, effort and support.
Answers to Frequently Asked Questions are here.
If you would like to be kept up to date with the progress sign up to receive the free WPAG newsletter at https://www.wpag.org.uk/free-newsletter
The history of Singlers Marsh is here.
How the Local Plan could affect Singlers Marsh is here.