Villagers near Harborough have made their voices heard in bitter battle to save their beloved green space at the heart of their community.
And to get their message across to the landowners, they came out in numbers over the weekend and plastered the nearby fence with banners made by the children and adults who use the field every day in Church Langton.
The Leicester Diocesan Board of Education recently fenced off part of the historic field which has angered many local residents - and they have the backing of Harborough MP Neil O’Brien and Harborough council leader Phil King.
Plans for homes on the land have been previously discussed - but the Diocese said that is not its intention at the moment.
Currently, the land is used for grazing but villagers said the new gates and fence restrict access to the field and unlawfully obstructs the public footpath.
Villager Anthony Lawton has been at the heart of the campaign. He said: "Villagers are appalled that the board wants to restrict use of most of a registered open space that sits at the heart of the community, well used and loved by the villagers for everything from dog walking to children’s games.
“The community has offered well over the asking rate to continue to use the land, but Diocesan Board has refused all offers. It prefers to fill most of the field with grazing livestock, to keep villagers from being on it.
Villagers believe this is a manoeuvre to increase chances of getting planning permission eventually, despite a united front of villagers, district council and local Member of Parliament.”
He added: “The church is on the record saying it will not try again for planning permission to build houses in the ‘foreseeable future’. We just want to keep using it until then, and will happily pay the church board for such use.”
Church Langton Parochial Church Councillor Sue Johnson, who attended the primary school from 1957 onwards, said: “It is so disheartening. The Board of Education has never even talked with the Parochial Church Council, a sister church organisation. How can we keep asking villagers to support St Peter’s, when they feel the church doesn’t support them?”.
Joanne Lucas, (48) helped organise a competition on Saturday for the best children’s poster on the fence. She said: “I’ve lived in both East and Church Langton since I was five years old. For years, as a child, I played with my friends from both villages on the field. It was and still is a place for picnics, meeting people and sport. I want my children to have the same experience and an open place to play in the village. I don’t understand why a they are now trying to deny this to us, when it’s even recognised officially in local plans as vital open green space for sport and recreation.”
Dog-walking father of two Peter Thompson, who led an informal group of villagers in talks with the Board in the first three months of 2021, said: “The Board of Education is building levels of resentment to the church in the community which will ultimately harm the support of St Peter’s and its congregation, the wider church and LDBE’s own reputation. The community reaction is disbelief that the Diocesan leaders could be so mercenary as to deny the community their only open accessible green space for the sake of a possible financial benefit in decades to come.”
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.
“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.”