One of the many things I like about living in Cambridge is my commute to work. In the mornings, it takes me across Midsummer Common and Parker’s Piece; in the evenings, at least while it’s dark, I usually head up Regent Street, keep straight on to Castle Street, and then take the handy shortcut round the back of Shire Hall. Heading home by this route last week, I spotted a notice informing passers-by that the County Council had made a “landowner deposit” covering the whole of the Shire Hall site. Curious as to what this might mean, I’ve been doing some investigating – and it’s not entirely reassuring.
Back in May 2018, councillors took the decision to sell the Shire Hall site and relocate the County Council headquarters to Alconbury. As well as Shire Hall itself, the six-acre site includes the neighbouring Octagon building, the Register Office, some earthworks from the Civil War, and the Castle Mound. According to a recent Council report, the site went on the market in late October, and the deadline for bids was at the end of January. The Council is currently evaluating the bids, and expects to choose the winner by mid-March. The report says that interest is mainly for “hotel use, the retirement sector and student accommodation providers,” as well as some plans for flats or offices. The Council hopes to exchange contracts later this year, before finally vacating the site in 2020.
So what, then, does the Council’s “landowner deposit” mean? You can read exactly what it says here. Basically it makes two declarations, one under the Highways Act 1980 about public rights of way, and one under the Commons Act 2006 about a town or village green. Here’s a map of the area it covers; you can find the original version here – click on Leisure and Culture, then Section 31-6.
The Highways Act declaration says, in effect, “we claim there are no public rights of way across the Shire Hall site and we don’t want any new ones to be created.” If a route has been open to and used by the public for 20 years without the landowner objecting, then it can be registered as a right of way. The Council’s declaration says that as landowner they do object. This prevents any new public rights of way being created because of routes being used after the date of the declaration (10 January 2019). However, as I understand it, someone could still claim a right of way based on use before this date.
The declaration under the Commons Act makes a similar statement about “a town or village green”. It rather tragically says that the Council “wishes to bring to an end any period during which persons may have indulged as of right in lawful sports and pastimes” on the site – thus preventing anyone registering a town green on the land on the basis of new use.
I should mention that I don’t have any particular expertise in land law; this article is based on my understanding of the situation from reading about it. If you have specialist knowledge in this area please do add a comment below and I’ll be happy to update the article.
So why would the Council want to prevent rights of way or town greens being created on the site? Clearly, if you are selling some land, having a right of way running across it, or a town green in the middle of it, complicates matters for any prospective buyer. Probably this declaration is on some standard checklist of things to do when you are selling off your Council headquarters. But it does raise the question of what will happen about public access to the site, both for people like me using the cut-through to Magrath Avenue, and also for people wanting to climb Castle Mound.
Cambridge is not over-endowed with hills, and for generations Cambridge residents have been climbing to the top of Castle Mound to enjoy the views of the city below, photograph the sunset, and even occasionally propose marriage. Many people would be horrified if there was an end to free public access to the Mound, but as the landowner deposit seeks to prevent new rights of way being established, you have to ask how access is going to be guaranteed once the site passes into private hands next year.
The Castle Mound is a scheduled monument, as are the Civil War Earthworks on the eastern boundary of the site, and this does ensure that it is protected from being damaged or built on. But being a scheduled monument does not, of itself, ensure that the public has any right of access. So what will?
When I tweeted about this issue yesterday, Councillor Schumann commented that the Request to Tender document asks bidders to explain how they will maintain or increase public access to the Castle Mound. This is all well and good, but it’s not too difficult to imagine a situation in a few years time where the site may change hands again and be acquired by an owner who simply wants to maximise their revenue from it. It costs money to maintain a scheduled monument, so what is to stop a future owner from charging admission or simply denying public access at all? I hope we’re going to get a convincing answer to this question from the County Council as the sale process proceeds.
Update: The County Council have issued a statement. But it’s not exactly the convincing answer I was hoping for.