R (on the application of Lancashire County Council) v Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

JurisdictionEngland & Wales
JudgeLord Wilson,Lady Arden,Lady Black,Lord Sales,Lord Carnwath
Judgment Date11 December 2019
Neutral Citation[2019] UKSC 58
Date11 December 2019
CourtSupreme Court

[2019] UKSC 58

Supreme Court

Michaelmas Term

On appeal from: [2018] EWCA Civ 721


Lord Wilson

Lord Carnwath

Lady Black

Lady Arden

Lord Sales

R (on the application of Lancashire County Council)
Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and another
R (on the application of NHS Property Services Ltd)
Surrey County Council and another

Appellant (1)

Douglas Edwards QC

Jeremy Pike

Daisy Noble

(Instructed by Sharpe Pritchard LLP on behalf of Jane Turner, Lancashire County Council Legal, Governance and Registrars Service)

Appellant (2)

George Laurence QC

Jonathan Clay

Simon Adamyk

(Instructed by Womble Bond Dickinson (UK) LLP (Newcastle))

Respondent (1)

Tim Buley QC

(Instructed by The Government Legal Department)

Respondent (2)

Ned Westaway

(Instructed by Harrison Grant)

Respondent (2)

Dr Ashley Bowes

(Instructed by Richard Buxton Solicitors (Cambridge))

Appellant (1):- Lancashire County Council


(1) Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

(2) Janine Bebbington

Appellant (2):- NHS Property Services Ltd


(1) Surrey County Council Legal Services instructed by Surrey County Council

(2) Timothy Jones

Heard on 15 and 16 July 2019

Lord Sales

Lord Carnwath AND( with whom Lady Black agrees)


The principal issue in these two appeals relates to the circumstances in which the concept of “statutory incompatibility” will defeat an application to register land as a town or village green where the land is held by a public authority for statutory purposes. In R (Newhaven Port & Properties Ltd) v East Sussex County Council [2015] UKSC 7; [2015] AC 1547 (“ Newhaven”) this court held that the duty under section 15 of the Commons Act 2006 did not extend to an area held under the specific statutes relating to the Newhaven Harbour. We are asked to decide whether the same principle applies to land held by statutory authorities under more general statutes, relating respectively (in these two cases) to education and health services.


Although the two appeals raise similar issues, they were dealt with by different procedural routes. The first (Lancashire) is within the area of a “pilot” scheme under the Commons Registration (England) Regulations 2008, under which, where the registration authority (in this case Lancashire County Council — “LCC”) has an interest in the land, applications are referred for determination to the Planning Inspectorate (regulations 27–28). The second case (Surrey) was not covered by the pilot scheme. The application was determined by Surrey County Council as registration authority, following a non-statutory inquiry before a barrister appointed by the council.

Modern greens — development of the law

As will be seen, in Newhaven the issue was described as one of “statutory interpretation”. Unfortunately, interpreting the will of Parliament in this context is problematic, because there is no indication that the concept of a modern green, as it has been developed by the courts, was part of the original thinking under the Commons Registration Act 1965. Lord Carnwath reviewed the earlier history, including the Report of the Royal Commission on Common Land 1955–1958 (1958) (Cmnd 462) which preceded the 1965 Act, in his judgments at first instance in R v Suffolk County Council, Ex p Steed (1995) 71 P & CR 463 (one of the first cases under the 1965 Act), and later in the Court of Appeal in Oxfordshire County Council v Oxford City Council [2006] Ch 43 (“the Trap Grounds case”). As he observed in the latter:

“51. The concept of a ‘modern’ class c green, as it has emerged in the cases since 1990, would, I think, have come as a surprise to the Royal Commissioners, and to the draftsman of the 1965 Act. There is no hint of it in the Royal Commission Report, or the Parliamentary Debates on the Bill. The commissioners' terms of reference were directed to sorting out the problems of the past, not to creating new categories of open land, for which there was no obvious need. By this time, of course, there were numerous statutes conferring on public authorities modern powers for the creation and management of recreational spaces for the public.”

Lord Carnwath also noted, at para 52, that, as late as 1975, in New Windsor Corpn v Mellor [1976] Ch 380 (“ New Windsor”), all three members of the Court of Appeal (including Lord Denning MR) had thought it natural to read the Act as referring to 20 years “before the passing of the Act” (at pp 391, 395) — an interpretation which would have ruled out the possibility of a modern green being established by more recent use.


It was not until the early 1990s that claims were first put forward based on 20 years' use since the 1965 Act had come into force at the end of July 1970 (apparently following the advice of the Open Spaces Society in their publication Getting Greens Registered (1995)). When the first case came before the House of Lords in 1999 ( R v Oxfordshire County Council, Ex p Sunningwell Parish Council [2000] 1 AC 335 — “ Sunningwell”), no one seems to have argued that the Act was directed to pre-1965 use only. In that case, the House of Lords, led by Lord Hoffmann, adopted a relatively expansive view of the new concept. He drew a parallel with the Rights of Way Act 1932, which he thought had reflected Parliament's view “that the previous law gave too much weight to the interests of the landowner and too little to the preservation of rights of way which had been for many years in de facto use” and the “strong public interest in facilitating the preservation of footpaths for access to the countryside” (p 359D-E). He commented, at p 359E:

“… in defining class c town or village greens by reference to similar criteria in 1965, Parliament recognised a similar public interest in the preservation of open spaces which had for many years been used for recreational purposes.”


That interpretation of Parliament's thinking would, with respect, have been difficult to deduce from the 1965 Act itself, or from anything said — in Parliament or anywhere else — at the time. However, when the issue came before the House again, in the Trap Grounds case [2006] 2 AC 674, Lord Hoffmann was able to claim implicit Parliamentary support in the debates which preceded the amendments made by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. As he said, at para 26:

“No one voiced any concern about the construction which the House in its judicial capacity had given to the 1965 Act. On the contrary, the only question raised in debate was whether the locality rule did not make it too difficult to register new village greens.”

By then, as he also noted (para 28) the new Commons Bill (the 2006 Act as it became) was before Parliament, providing a further opportunity for legislative reconsideration if thought appropriate. In Newhaven [2015] AC 1547, para 18, this fact was cited as a reason for not having given permission to reopen the general approach adopted in the Trap Grounds case.


As to the attributes of a modern green, the 2006 Act itself, like the 1965 Act which preceded it, is very sparse in the information it gives. Section 1 of the 2006 Act requires each registration authority to maintain a register of town or village greens. Section 15 indicates that any person can apply to register land as a green where, in subsection (1)(a) —

“a significant number of the inhabitants of any locality, or of any neighbourhood within a locality, have indulged as of right in lawful sports and pastimes on the land for the period of at least 20 years …”

As to the purpose of registration, section 2(2)(a) states simply that the purpose of the register is “to register land as a town or village green”. The Act offers no further guidance as to the interpretation of the section 15 formula, nor as to the practical consequences of registration.


An unexplained curiosity is that section 10 of the 1965 Act, which provided that the register was “conclusive evidence of the matters registered, as at the date of registration”, is not repeated in the 2006 Act. As things stand the repeal of section 10 has been brought into effect only in the pilot areas. (Section 18 of the 2006 Act, headed “Conclusiveness”, which has effect in the pilot areas, does not on its face go so far as section 10.) In the Trap Grounds case, Lord Hoffmann had agreed (at para 43) with Lord Carnwath's analysis in the Court of Appeal [2006] Ch 43, para 100, that the 1965 Act “created no new legal status, and no new rights or liabilities other than those resulting from the proper interpretation of section 10. It was on the “rational construction of section 10 that he relied for his view that land registered as a town or village green “can be used generally for sports and pastimes” (para 50), and was also subject to section 12 of the Inclosure Act 1857 and section 29 of the Commons Act 1876 (para 56). None of the experienced counsel before us was able to offer an explanation for the disappearance of section 10, but none sought to argue that it had made any material difference to the rights following registration. Not without some hesitation, we shall proceed on that basis.


Lord Hoffmann made clear that, following registration, the owner was not excluded altogether, but retained the right to use the land in any way which does not interfere with the recreational rights of the inhabitants, with “give and take on both sides” (para 51). That qualification was further developed in R (Lewis) v Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council [2010] UKSC 1; [2010] 2 AC 70 (“ Lewis”), in which it was held that the local inhabitants' rights to use a green following registration could not interfere with competing activities of the landowner to a greater extent than during the qualifying period.


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