Harborough MP calls on the Bishop of Leicester to step in to end a bitter stand-off over a much-loved field in a village near Harborough

He is being backed by the leader of Harborough District Council, as he warned that relations between the Church and local people are becoming seriously damaged

Wednesday, 23rd June 2021, 10:02 am
Villagers are fighting to protect this field in Church Langton.

Harborough MP Neil O’Brien is calling on the Bishop of Leicester to act now to end a bitter stand-off with furious residents over their beloved open space in a village near Market Harborough.

The MP is urging Bishop Martyn Snow to intervene personally in a bid to break the deadlock as villagers battle to protect an historic field in Church Langton.

Neil is being backed by Cllr Phil King, the leader of Harborough District Council, as he warned that relations between the Church and local people up in arms are becoming seriously damaged.

Anthony Lawton and his grand-daughter Kit Lawton campaigning to save the field.

They are stepping up the stakes after a fence and a gate unilaterally put up on the recreation space a few weeks ago – inflaming tensions even more – are being taken down again.

“I’m very concerned that the relationship between the Church and residents across the village is continuing to deteriorate on the back of this issue.

“I’ve reached out to the Bishop of Leicester directly on this matter,” the Conservative MP told the Harborough Mail.

“I would very much welcome his personal involvement in this issue - to work with me, the council and local residents to help repair relations and find a way forward on this.”

Neil has written to Bishop Snow imploring the senior churchman to help hammer out and safeguard the future of the green field for the tight-knit village.

He has acted amid continued speculation that the Leicester Diocesan Board of Education, (LDBE), which owns the parcel of land, wants to build houses on it.

Neil has told the Bishop in his letter: “As you know the land has historically been open space and was part of the school playing fields.

“Many residents walk dogs on it as it is really the only open green space within the village.

“The residents I have spoken to understand there is a desire to lease the land for grazing.

“I also understand some residents have offered to at least match the rent for grazing from their own pocket, though I understand these offers were unfortunately rejected,” wrote the MP.

“After refusal for housing by the council and then the Planning Inspectorate, through the conversations LDBE has held with representatives and the leader of Harborough District Council, it has been made clear that future proposals for housing on this land will not materialise or be granted.

“I would urge LDBE to re-engage with Harborough District Council and residents on this once again to ensure the planning policies governing this land are fully discussed and understood – before relationships between the Church and residents deteriorate further,” said Neil.

“I would welcome your personal involvement in these discussions….to help with arriving at a suitable and mutually beneficial outcome here on the future of this much-used and much-valued community space.”

Cllr King told the Mail: “This is a very important piece of open ground used and loved by villagers in Church Langton.

“The way the Church has acted over this for far too long has upset local people.

“And villagers regard the way they have acted as being totally incompatible with how they understand Christian values.

“The bare facts of the case are this,” insisted Cllr King.

“Leicester Diocesan Board of Education have already had two planning applications to build expensive executive-style houses on there turned down by our council.

“They have also been turned down by the Planning Inspectorate.

“This land is protected as valued open space in both the Neighbourhood Plan and our Local Plan.

“The field is worth nothing to them at the moment – it’s as simple as that.

“But worried villagers fear they have got the fabled Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads in the long term because this threat will not go away,” said the Harborough council boss.

“It is high time church board leaders sit down with villagers and enter into proper meaningful talks.

“They are sick and fed-up of cynical tactics being used here.

“I cannot foresee any time in future when the Church will get the go-ahead to build on this land.

“Local families have enjoyed walking on this field, playing football and cricket on it and getting out into the fresh air for 80 years – if not more.

“And they should be able to get out and make the most of it for the next 80 years – at least.”

Stephen Adshead, the chair of the Leicester Diocesan Board of Education, said: “After careful consideration, the Leicester Diocesan Board of Education (LDBE) has decided to remove the fence and gate which had been recently installed.

“This had been designed to make available a section of the field for the community to use recreationally in addition to the ongoing right to use the public footpath.

“LDBE are disappointed that this generous offer was not considered acceptable to the community.

“LDBE will reinstate the fence that was previously installed, with advice on its placement from Leicestershire County Council in 2008.”

He added: “The majority of the field will continue to be marketed for grazing.

“The field is subject to a planning designation as ‘open space for sport and recreation’ which does not require privately-owned land to be made available for community recreational use.

“However, the public footpath which crosses the field will remain available to all members of the pubic at all times.

“LDBE has considered the matter in detail and reflected on the views of local residents along with professional advice.

“Any further communication which is received will be noted but may not be responded to.”

A Leicestershire County Council spokeswoman said: “We are aware of concerns raised by residents in Church Langton about access to public footpaths.

“Our rights of way team are working closely with the land owner to ensure that the public rights of way are maintained.”

Anthony Lawton, 67, who is spearheading the villagers’ fight to block development, told the Mail: “The Church didn’t even bother to tell us that they were removing this hated fence and gate.

“That speaks volumes about their arrogance and complete disdain for us.

“They are failing yet again to follow the second of their two charity objects, which is to act always in accordance with the principles and doctrines of the Church of England.

“Let alone the absence of courtesy and, in the jargon, good stakeholder management!

“Have they learned nothing about improving their communications with key stakeholders?

“It says it all that the Church are completely failing to take our seriously angry and disillusioned community with them in how they do things.

“They even fear direct action because we have been dealt with so badly for years,” said Anthony, the former chief executive of national youth homelessness charity Centrepoint and the first chair of Leicester Curve Theatre.

“We have more than matched their asking price to lease out this land and look after it ourselves – and been promptly rejected.

“We have tried time and again to sit down and talk to church leaders to resolve this problem.

“We’d all just appeal to them to be responsible, responsive and reasonable about this – because at the moment we are getting nowhere.”