Villagers fighting a bitter battle to protect their beloved open space in Harborough are making an emotional appeal to the landowners – let us lease it out.
They are making the heartfelt plea to the Leicester Diocesan Board of Education after part of the historic field in the village of Church Langton was fenced off and a gate put up – inflaming tensions even more.
Angry residents are being backed by Harborough MP Neil O’Brien and Harborough council leader Phil King.
And Cllr King insisted that there was “no chance” of new homes going ahead on the green field after previous bids to “cash in” were flatly rejected.
Anthony Lawton, 67, who is spearheading the campaign to keep the field for local people, told the Harborough Mail: “This whole sorry episode absolutely beggars belief.
“Emotions are running very high in Church Langton.
“Enough is enough.
“Families here have loved and enjoyed this magnificent open space at the heart of our beautiful village for many decades if not centuries,” declared Anthony.
“We all treasure it 100 per cent – it’s the sparkling jewel in our village crown.
“But we have been treated with contempt and brushed aside for too long and it simply is not good enough.”
The incensed dad-of-two and grandfather said the local church board has decided to lease the field – or most of it – out for grazing.
Anthony said they advertised it to be rented out for £700-a-year.
“I personally offered them £900 and got flatly turned down.
“Our parish council agreed to meet the guide price – and got nowhere.
“I know that a man in Church Langton has said he’ll shell out £1,000, well over the asking fee,” he said.
“And he still got rejected.
“So my question to the Diocesan Board is this – why are you so determined that this land is hired out for grazing?
“Is our money not good enough for you?
“Why are you so dead set at stopping us renting out and looking after this field which is so close to our hearts?
“The final straw came when contractors suddenly appeared last Tuesday and put up a fence and a kissing gate.
“They have given us permission to use about a quarter of the open space and we have to stay off the rest,” said Anthony, the former chief executive of national youth homelessness charity Centrepoint and the first chair of Leicester Curve Theatre.
“None of us can understand what the Board are up to.
“They are being given poor professional advice, they are practising abject stewardship and they have infuriated and alienated everybody within a radius of about 10 miles.
“Let’s make this simple.
“We are holding out an olive branch to the people who run this church board.
“Let us work together for the good of villagers and the good of Church Langton.
“And we will then do our level best to support and get behind our village school, the church and the Board itself.
“Do right by us and we’ll back you all the way.”
Harborough MP Neil O’Brien accused the Board of wanting to exploit a much-loved meadow villagers had enjoyed “for a very long time”.
“It’s clear to me that the church is holding out to try to get new housing on there – even though Harborough council has refused consistently to allow this.
“The Board is behaving in a very high-handed way towards villagers after putting up this new fence and gate without any debate what so ever,” said Neil.
Cllr Phil King, who leads Harborough council, said: “People in Church Langton are very upset about the ongoing trouble over this field – and I can understand why.
“Villagers have used and made the most of this fantastic space for many years.
“But the Board seems to be obsessed with wanting to deliver large executive-style houses on there – and making a lot of money.
“This vision is totally mythical.
“It is never going to happen,” insisted Cllr King.
“We have already turned down two planning applications from the Board to build on there – they were also thrown out by the Planning Inspectorate.
“They didn’t seek any advice from our council about these planned developments.
“Apart from anything else we have over seven years of housing supply in Harborough – we don’t need any more land.
“In the local Neighbourhood Plan this field is designated purely for sport, exercise, dog walkers – people getting out to enjoy the outdoors and fresh air,” said Cllr King.
“There now seem to be growing issues as well over the public’s right of access to a footpath leading off this field after the Board has put up the fence.
“It’s just not acceptable.
“I am fully behind the villagers of Church Langton and we will continue to support them.”
A Board spokesperson said they met village “representatives” over the winter and informed them “it was releasing a section of its field to the village for a recreational area”.
“We met with representatives from the Church Langton community to listen to their concerns and explore potential options.
“Their aim was to find a solution which recognised the feeling of the local community alongside the legal obligations of LDBE (Leicester Diocesan Board of Education) as a charity.
“To show its commitment, LDBE paused its marketing of the land for leasing as grazing at the community's request in order to allow time for discussion with them.
“As a charity established to support church school education across the whole Diocese of Leicester, its Board of Education must continue to meet its aim of acting with primary responsibility for the 97 church schools across the diocese educating 23,000 children and young people.
“The Board is thus not in a position to ignore expert opinion on responsible management of its assets and investments, which must be used for the benefit of all of its schools,” said the spokesperson.
“This means that we must retain the option of development on the land at some point in the future.
“However, advice provided to LDBE has enabled the offer to release a section of its field to the village for a recreational area.
“This section of land which has been offered represents almost a quarter of the total area of the field.
“This has been made available to the village community without any rental charge with the remainder of the land leased for grazing.
“This is the only arrangement that is available to the Board in its obligations to maintain its responsibility to all of our schools as well as assist the Church Langton community.
“The Board is disappointed that this proposal was not acceptable to the community as it believed this was an excellent way of ensuring there is a safe space for recreation in future.
“However, we will continue with our commitment to make this part of the land available for the community to use in addition to their ongoing right to use the public footpath that crosses the field.”