A Light Shining in Hanwell: battles for open green space in West London

Residents of Hanwell, West London, have recently shown that if enclosure of open space is not just a historical process but an ongoing threat to public access to land, so too resistance is alive and kicking, and can win victories.

In the last decade two open spaces lying next to each other, Brent River Park and Warren Farm, have seen campaigners fight off attempts to fence off or sell off land people have been accessing for decades. These struggles have involved a whole range of tactics from investigation, petitioning, legal casework and sabotage. An inspiration to all those struggling in London (and beyond) to keep green space public, accessible and free.

But we shouldn’t be surprised Hanwellians show such determination- this area has seen resistance to enclosure before…

Brent River Park – ‘Fencegate’

In April 2019, residents of Hanwell in Ealing, west London, were dismayed that part of their park had been fenced off. St Margaret’s open space sits by the Grand Union Canal and is part of Brent River Park. The neighbouring landowner, the Hobbayne Trust, finding that part of the park is unregistered land, tried to nick it.

Section of Ealing Parks Map showing the fenced off land

What some campaigners have called ‘Fencegate’ began when the Hobbayne Trust fenced off part of St Margaret’s Open Space between Billets Hart Close and the Grand Union Canal on 25 April 2019. This annotated section of the Ealing Parks map shows the piece of the park which was fenced off.

In enclosing this land, the Hobbayne Trust effectively extended the boundary of the neigbouring William Hobbayne Community Gardens, which it has owned since 2014, to incorporate part of St Margaret’s Open Space.

Although Ealing Council owns most of St Margaret’s Open Space, the ownership of this small piece of land is unknown. It is unregistered land, which means that no-one has ever provided evidence of ownership to the Land Registry. However, it has been designated as Public Open Space by Ealing Council and been freely accessible to the public since the mid 1990s. Ealing council has treated it as part of the neighbouring park and has maintained it since the early 2000s. It is clearly marked as part of Ealing Parks on the council’s parks map, and also designated as a Grade 1 Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC).

The adjoining land on which the William Hobbayne Community Gardens now stand was previously owned by British Waterways, who registered the land on 13 October 2006. The lease on part of this land which became the William Hobbayne Community Gardens was gifted to the Hobbayne Trust by British Waterways in 2008.

The Hobbayne Trust bought the land from the Canal and River Trust, the successor body to British Waterways, for £80,000. In the sale documents the boundary of the land is clearly marked. It does not include the land fenced off in April 2019.

The Hobbayne Trust signed an agreement with Laing Homes, the company which which built neighbouring Billets Hart Close, and which still owns the freehold of the land under the road. This agreement gave the Hobbayne Trust vehicle access across Billets Hart Close. The Hobbayne Trust paid Laing Homes £3,500 for this access. None of the residents on Billets Hart Close were informed of this transaction.

As mentioned above, in April 2019 the Hobbayne Trust fenced off the piece of St Margarets Open Space. To see the extent of the new enclosure, compare this Google street view photo from summer 2018 with the one taken a year later. The orange bag caught in the tree makes it easy to do a before and after comparison.

August 2019 – Down With the Fence

The Hobbayne Trust’s fence was thus extended upstream, beyond the boundary of its land, to enclose part of St Margaret’s Open Space.

According to Ealing Council’s Local Plan, this land is designated as Public Open Space. It is listed as such on council documents available online dating from 2010. These, in turn, refer to plans dating from 2004. Residents have copies of conveyancing documents which list it as Public Open Space in 1996. It has therefore been Public Open Space and freely accessible to the public for almost a quarter of a century.

Section of Ealing Local Plan

In May 2019 number of residents contacted the Hobbayne Trust and Ealing Council challenging the enclosure of the land and asking the Trust and the Council to remove the fence.

On 27 June 2019 the Hobbayne Trust issued a statement which it distributed to nearby households and posted by the Grand Union towpath. It said:

“You may be aware that the Hobbayne Charity has recently fenced a small section of land to the north of the Community Gardens bordering the canal.“This action was taken so as to rectify a drafting error dating from 2006.”

2006 was the year in which British Waterways registered the land on which the Community Gardens now stand (see above).

The Hobbayne Trust claimed that British Waterways made a mistake in drawing the boundary when it registered the land – this, however, was not borne out by the available evidence. The north-western boundary of the land which now forms the community gardens has been there since 1996 according to the conveyancing documents (and memories) of those who have lived on Billets Hart Close since it was built. An Ordnance Survey map from 1960 also shows the boundary in exactly the same place as it was before the Hobbayne Trust moved its fence.

Section of Ordnance Survey map 1960

There is no evidence of any mistake being made here. When British Waterways registered the land that now forms the Community Gardens, its plan of the area reflected the boundaries that had existed for decades.

In the same statement, the Hobbayne Trust also said that it intended to put a gateway onto Billets Hart Close to provide a second access to the Community Gardens, in addition to the main one on St Margaret’s Road. This access would go from Billets Hart Close to the Community Gardens via the newly enclosed land. This would necessitate the removal of the railings and hawthorn hedge on St Margaret’s Open Space at the end of Billets Hart Close.

On 29 July 2019 the Hobbayne Trust applied to register its ownership of the fenced off land, claiming that it had been in possession of the land since 2008.

Local residents didn’t buy the trust’s explanation of the land’s history…

… Nor did the Land Registry, which rejected the trust’s claim of ownership on 1 August 2019.

Meanwhile, fed up with waiting for the trust or for Ealing Council to move the fence, some residents took the law into their own hands. Over the August 2019 bank holiday, they broke the new fence down.

Down with the fences!

In resorting to Direct Action to remove fences around enclosed land, the residents echoed long and proud traditions of defending open space not just by lobbying and campaigning, but practical measures.

In this case as so many others, their action proved a turning point in the dispute.

On 29 August 2019, sixteen households on Billets Hart Close again wrote a joint letter to the Hobbayne Trust’s chairman, challenging the enclosure of the land and asking that the fence be removed. The letter was copied to Ealing Council.

The letter made the following points:

Before the Trust fenced it off, the land had been freely accessible to the public since 1996.

It is designated as Public Open Space in Ealing Council’s Local Plan and has been described as such in numerous council documents. There are also documents from Laing Homes dated 1996 showing it as Public Open Space.

The land had been been maintained by Ealing Council, at public expense, since at least 2004.

The Hobbayne Trust had not provided residents with any evidence of its ownership of the fenced off land. It had not registered as the proprietor of the land at the Land Registry.

The north-western boundary of the Hobbayne Trust’s land is clearly marked on the transfer documents from when it bought the land from the Canal and River Trust in 2014. The same boundary is also marked on residents’ conveyancing documents from when Billets Hart Close was built in 1996-97.

The residents of Billets Hart Close were not informed about the erecting of the fence. The Hobbayne Trust made no attempt to consult or engage with local residents before erecting the fence.

The letter concluded:

“We call on the trustees to remove the fence around the piece of the park they have enclosed without further delay. This land is public space and the public would like it back.”

In response to the residents’ letter, the Hobbayne Trust called a meeting. Its representatives met with 20 local residents on 14 October 2019, saying that they wanted to rebuild trust with the local community.

At the meeting the Hobbayne Trust’s representatives confirmed that they did not own the land and had fenced it off without having any legal title to it. They said that they were in ‘a legal process’ to acquire the land and that the Canal and River Trust was in the process of establishing its ownership in order to transfer the land to the Trust. They failed to mention that their application to claim ownership of the land had been rejected by the Land Registry two months earlier…

Also, the Canal and River Trust had not made any attempt to register the land, nor did they ever claim the disputed area.

At the same meeting, the Hobbayne Trust’s representatives also re-stated their intention to put a gateway onto the disputed land to give access to the Community Gardens from Billets Hart Close. They were unclear about whether this was to be for pedestrians only or for vehicles. They denied all knowledge of the agreement signed on 20 July 2017 by the Hobbayne Trust, together with the payment of £3,500, for vehicle access to Billets Hart Close.

In a written statement presented at the meeting, the Hobbayne Trust said that it had informed the residents at the end of Billets Hart Close of its proposed action to enclose the land. However, no residents on Billets Hart Close received any such communication from the Trust.

After a number of residents wrote to Ealing Council over the summer, the Council responded in November 2019, via separate letters and emails to local residents. It stated that:

The council did not believe the Hobbayne Trust had a legal entitlement to the land it had fenced off;

The fence had been constructed by the Hobbayne Trust without the council’s consent;

The Council believes that it has a greater claim to ownership of the land than any other party and is preparing to register its ownership of the land through adverse possession, on the grounds that it has occupied and maintained the land for the required period;

The council expects the Hobbayne Trust to remove its fence.

The removal of some of the panels enabled the public to reclaim its right of way across the land: the faint reappearance of the footpath (a desire line), quickly showed this right was being regularly exercised.

The council did not issued any enforcement notice (or, if it has, it hasn’t said so publicly) and the Hobbayne Trust did not remove the remains of the fence. Residents continued to fight for the complete removal of the fence and the return of the land to the public…

The job of removing the fence was eventually completed in March by the Canal and River Trust (CRT) when residents reported that the fence encroached on the Grand Union Canal towpath land.

Residents hope that in future Ealing Council will be more active in protecting such public open space. Early signs are encouraging: the council has said again that it will register the land.The ultimate aim of the local campaigners is to see the land become part of the statutory local nature reserve being proposed by the Brent River and Canal Society for neighbouring Warren Farm and its surrounding meadows.

The Warren Farm Campaign

Warren Farm, which lies just across the Brent River from the piece of disputed land on St Margaret’s open space above, has seen an even longer campaign to fight off the land being given into private hands by Ealing Council.

In the Elizabethan Period, Warren Farm was a tenancy of the Osterley Park Estate. The estate was owned by Sir Thomas Gresham, who opened one of Britain’s first paper mills, by the River Brent in the 1570s. Appropriately enough for this story, Gresham was also a pioneer of enclosure in this area: in 1576 his fencing off of common land caused riots.

In the Victorian period, Warren Farm was a working farm. Ordnance Survey maps from the early 1890s show a public footpath across the site. This right of way was diverted and a newer route runs along the railway.

In 1925, the Countess of Jersey sold Warren Farm to the London County Council (LCC) for sports usage, but the Depression and World War II disrupted these plans, but after the war Warren Farm was run as a farm by the local St Bernard’s Psychiatric Hospital until 1961, and the LCC and then ILEA (the Inner London Education Authority) used the land as a variety of sports pitches for schoolchildren and clubs. In the 1960s the changing rooms were erected and football, cricket, netball, tennis, shot-put and long jump pitches were on the site. When ILEA was dissolved in 1990, Warren Farm passed to the London Borough of Ealing (LBE). Later, a children’s day centre the Pride and Joy Child Care Nursery were based there.

By the 2000s Ealing Council claimed they did not have the funds to maintain the land. The site maintenance stopped. Changing rooms were vandalised and became derelict.In 2009 the London Borough of Ealing launched plans to rent Warren Farm to Queen’s Park Rangers (QPR) football club on a 200 year lease at a peppercorn rent. Effectively gifting Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) to a private company for 200 years. Under the plan there would have been no more public community access.

In opposition to this plan, the Save Warren Farm (SWF) group was founded in 2014. The group raised money and fought the QPR deal, seeking a Judicial Review against Ealing, on the grounds that the council had acted unlawfully in disposing of Warren Farm. The Judicial Review was turned down, however, and QPR were imminently expected to start works on Warren Farm.
No works began, however, and questions arose as to whether QPR could in fact afford to proceed with their plans.

Desire Lines on Warren Farm

In 2016, Save Warren Farm applied to register a footpath across Warren Farm as a Public Right of Way. Ealing Council refused the application. An appeal to the Planning Inspectorate was rejected the following year. In 2016, QPR had their Planning Permission extended by 4 years, with their original plans for Warren Farm scaled back and with the introduction of landfill planned across the site.
In 2017, Ealing Council introduced a new waste collection scheme which meant all households required new wheelie bins. The bins were stored on Warren Farm, but were set on fire twice that same year…By 2019, nature had reclaimed much of the abandoned Warren Farm site. QPR’s ecological surveys concluded that Warren Farm was ‘species poor’ and of ‘little to no ecological value’. A new campaign group, Hanwell Nature, gathered evidence which challenged this assertion. Fundraising began and a Judicial Review was now granted on the basis that Ealing Council failed to undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). In 2020, Ealing Council pulled out of the Judicial Review hearing brought by the Hanwell Nature campaign, apparently not wanting to waste taxpayers money defending the Judicial Review. QPR’s extended planning permission had run out prior to the hearing and QPR had by now found an alternative site.

In the autumn of 2020, the Brent River & Canal Society (BRCS), a charity founded in 1973 whose aim is to protect and enhance Brent River Park (of which Warren Farm is part), released a new vision for Warren Farm Nature Reserve. Initially inspired by young conservationist Kabir Kaul, the BRCS forward-thinking vision asked Ealing Council to work with them in creating Warren Farm Nature Reserve, obtaining Local Nature Reserve (LNR) status for Warren Farm, Jubilee Meadow, Blackberry Corner, Trumper’s Field and Fox Meadow, with the future potential of adding the Imperial College London owned land and the Earl of Jersey’s Field. This would create one large Local Nature Reserve comprised of meadow habitats, with Warren Farm at its centre – preserving meadows for wildlife, humans and for future generations.

 sign the Warren Farm Nature Reserve petition here

Enclosures and Hanwell’s History

Hopefully locals’ plans to unite all the open space above into a Nature reserve will bear fruit… their stalwart defence of their green space should inspire us all.

But it is not surprising that these attempts by the Hobbayne Trust and Ealing Council/QPR to deprive people of open space have been so stoutly fought off. This area has form, as they say, for resistance to enclosures of land.

Common land was vital to the existence of many people before the industrial revolution, when most lived on the land, and worked on the land. Working people might own one or two animals, which they woud graze on commons; wood in common land was gathered for burning for fuel, as was turf; food stuffs were also there to be gathered. Access to commons could make the difference between survival and starvation, and the right to use them had grown up through centuries of struggle against landowners often keen to restrict what people could use. Through the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, local landowners increasingly tried to enclose land – fence it off for more intensive agriculture, denying poorer folk the resources previously available to them. Much of England’s land was enclosed by 1830. But this process was widely resisted, by legal campaigning, direct action like sabotage, by riots and revolts. Read more on this in the London area.

As noted above, parts of the Hanwell area were owned by the aristocratic residents of Osterley House, and Thomas Gresham had faced rioting and sabotage in response to his enclosing of common land to build Osterley Park. There were further troubles at Osterley Park over enclosure in 1614, when several women cut down trees belonging to Sir William Reade, who had inherited the house.

Hanwell itself saw a struggle by the wealthy to enclose Heathland, at the end of the 18th century. This sparked resistance, of which some mention has survived.

Moves to enclose the parish had been discussed by the parish vestry in 1792, but a meeting of tenants called by the vestry apparently voted against wholesale enclosure. This may have been due not so much to idealogical opposition as from fear of local reaction, as there are reports of local discontent and some threats to farmers, over regulation and restrictions in the local commons fields. Attempts by the vestry to cut back numbers of animals that could be grazed in the common had been met with objections, as customary use that had evolved over centuries allowed for more grazing than the new rules allotted. Through the 1790s, repeated orders issued by the parish officers regarding the restrictions were ignored; in 1796 the vestry appealed to the Lord of the Manor to punish the transgressors as they were powerless to enforce their rules. This constant stubborn resistance climaxed in August 1798 with the removal of a lock and  chain barring access to the ‘Common South Field’, which was partly owned by a farmer, Mr George, and the driving in to graze of a large crowd of livestock by local rebels.

Surveying land for enclosure

Attempts to survey the parish a few years later, a usual precursor to enclosure, may have met with a bit of theft… In 1803, the vestry voted to have the parish surveyed and mapped, and hired a professional land surveyor for the job. The parish surveyor Mr Grimault refused to co-operate with him however… despite this, the survey was carried out, and handed in to the vestry in November 1803. In June 1805, however, the document mysteriously went missing, “taken away, or misplaced.” Someone trying to slow the process down?

Despite all this, the Vestry managed to push through the enclosure in March 1813. Not without another act of defiance, however: in May, local youth arranged a cricket match on newly enclosed Hanwell Heath, and the constable was urged by the vestry to “use their utmost exertions to prevent the lads from this Village from assembling on the heath on Sundays.” Both the enjoying themselves on the Sabbath  and invading newly enclosed land being offensive to the authorities… Feelings of attachment to their common died hard.

In the wider area around Hanwell, access to Common land in this part of the old county of Middlesex was fought over for centuries.

The huge expanse of nearby Hounslow Heath was the arena for resistance to enclosure for several hundred years… Attempts to enclose common land in the Heston area about 1600 seem to have been defeated by a group of tenants led by Sir Gideon Awnsham. Complaints were also made in Heston in 1634 about recent enclosures of the common lands.

1834, Ickenham labourers dug up and allotted themselves several parcels of land, in defiance of manor courts who spent twenty years unsuccessfully trying to evict these latter-day diggers

An Inspiration

The area of land fenced off in St Margaret’s open space may be small – but small pieces of land can be dear to people. Councils, developers, landowners often think they can take spaces away without fightback – not this time. 

What has so far helped the Hanwell residents in their campaign has been a cunning use of direct action hand in hand with meticulous research. We love it! 

The Hanwell campaigns shine a light of inspiration to the many other local campaigners fighting off attempts to build on open space and close off access to land… 

Campaigners all over are fighting off attempts to enclose and develop small green spaces, especially land on council estates. Peckham Green was recently fenced off and built over by Southwark Council, despite local objections; on several Southwark estates, tenants are facing proposals to build over small green areas used by them but considered waste by council penpushers. The same story is beginning to crop up all over the capital. But the Hanwell story shows the faceless planners don’t always win…
If the council or another body wants your green space – get together! Research the real ownership, find out what your neighbours want – fight back! (The Open Spaces Society can often help)

Campaigners may feel lairy about what seem like extreme actions like pulling down fences; legally risky, chance of arrest… In this case, having the legal proofs of the land not belonging to the Hobbayne Trust gave the fence destroyers some security in their actions… With other spaces, legal ownership issues may be more clear cut the other way. However, direct action is a powerful weapon. And ownership of open space is often twofold – there’s legal title, yes, but counterposed to that is also how people who use the place feel about somewhere, are invested in it, feel like it is theirs. Access to places can go back centuries, but attachment to open space can build up over much shorter time; it is not easily dismissed. And how did the ‘legal’ owners of land get to own most of it anyway? Violent expropriation of everyone else, by force, lawyers, authority… 

How strongly people feel about a place has implications in how people are willing to fight for it…

The relationship of the St Margaret’s and Warren Farm campaigns with Ealing Council also show the contradictory and uncertain nature of the ownership of public land. Local authorities have been in charge of managing public space for a century and a half, by and large. But is been and up and down ride, especially in recent decades, with budget cuts and other pressures bearing on ownership of open spaces. Money is tight. The temptation to offload it (as Ealing tried to do with Warren Farm to QPR), to cross one headache off the budget list, is strong… (Or to close if off to many users by letting it be used for paying festivals much of the summer, as happens elsewhere).

But open spaces, vital as they are to people’s lives, belong to us all. The legal title of landowners and trusts is generally dubious, historically; the stewardship of local authorities need constant monitoring by us all from below…

 

 

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