SOHAM TOWN COUNCIL Land formerly known as Commonland at the Shade Soham
Unlike other commons in Soham (Angle, East Fen, Qua Fen) which were along with others Nationally requisitioned for food production during WW2 but were then post War and rationing returned to their original Owners, The Shade Common was purchased by the then Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) under Compulsory Order. There appears to be a number of reasons as well as differing opinions locally as to why this happened but by demonstration and during the intervening years and up to 1976 the land was recognised by MAFF as, and held under the status of being, common land which was consistent to the beliefs held by many Soham residents at that time.
In 1976 Cambridge County Council (CCC) purchased the land and has up to recently continued to maintain it a similar manner, allowing it to be farmed under (tithe) tenancy or laying fallow as practised and established under MAFF its previous owner/custodian/steward. In more recent years CCC has re-evaluated the land as being a more commercially valuable asset to be used for (better) strategies in generating both capital income and provision of ongoing revenue for this Authority. CCC has done this by developing portions (The Shade primary School, CLT housing) but also undertaking market value disposals (BP garage, residential home company), being a partner in ‘the Northern Gateway’ initiatives as well as vesting proportions into This Land Ltd a company registered at Companies House a company limited by shares with CCC being currently its single shareholder.
Soham Town Council has as consequence of this continued and worrying trend in developments to circa 88 acres of land formerly known as The Shade Common, written to CCC in its capacity as a Commons Registration Authority (CRA) and also the HM registered Landowner, seeking some agreement and commitment to the conservation protection & preservation of this historic land area.
Soham Town Council acknowledges that this correspondences and the responses from CCC have failed to provide any assurances to these significant open space area losses. Last year as consequence of this concern and on receipt of a petition received from residents Soham Town Council agreed to engage legal Counsel (QC) to review the matter with a view to consider whether there was legal recourse to CCC’s current commercial plans to this land’s development and loss.
Soham Town Council considers this matter to continue to be of Public Interest and duly provides for transparency and scrutiny purposes both the QC’s report prepared on its behalf together with copy of the original conveyance document of 1976 between the then owner (MAFF) to CCC and on which it continues to rely.
The QC’s opinion is that as current law stands any legal challenge would not only be vexatious but ill-conceived which in all probability most likely to fail exposing the Soham ratepayer to potentially significant legal costs. Under present circumstances and on the basis of the QC’s advice, to those risk and potential costs Soham Town Council will not pursue further the matter of the loss of the land formerly known as The Shade Common Soham.
The conveyance document of 1976 between MAFF and CCC expressly refers to the land and throughout the document as being ‘common land’ and consistent with this makes specific reference to the extinguishment of (commoners’) Rights. The extinguishment of Rights of commoners’ Rights would not in themselves mean land is no longer designated as common land but the lack of registration by MAFF to the deadline set of 1ST June 1970 as imposed by the Commons Act 1965 allowed for the legitimate land transfer in fee simple to CCC in 1976. Arguably MAFF could have placed some land charge or restrictions in the Conveyance of 1976 to better assure protection afforded to its previous status and use consistent with the nature of the land but this was not done. In absolute terms and without a change in legislation the Owner (CCC) of the land area formerly known as The Shade Common is indeed considered in absolute legal terms to be held harmless to challenge and free to develop or dispose of the asset formerly known as The Shade Commons as it sees fit under the caveat of mandate from its Electors/ratepayers.
Any and all Statutory duties and obligations whether in terms of absolute or in spirit of the prevailing laws at that time or indeed ethical commitments however could conceivably and contractually be considered to have transferred from MAFF to CCC in 1976.
Under the requirements of the Commons Act 1965 it would have been possible to rectify the omission in establishing new rights of common and registering it as ‘new’ common land:
- for MAF from 1954 to 1976
- for CCC from 1976 to date
Under The Commons Act 1965 there remains an ability for CCC to address registration of the land but has instead chosen a path of commercialisation and disposal
Therefore there is always scope and opportunity of righting this historic loss (wrong) but for this to happen CCC must create new commoners Rights which would then enable it as the Landowner to register the land (with itself acting as the CRA).
CCC’s current position as the Landowner is not to establish commoner Rights however it should be remembered that CCC is a Local Authority operating and using its available assets under the remit, mandate of and held accountable to the resident/elector. It remains for the resident/elector to consider the matter of the former Shade common land and be assured that CCC is held to account for its use and disposal and to determine whether CCC can as act as both CRA and Landowner in this matter. Soham Town Council considers that it is highly irregular for CCC to operate in this dual role particularly now with its linked association with This Land Ltd where both its Officers and elected officials retain executive roles.
Soham Town Council considers that given there is a possibility for this common to be reinstated as ‘new’ common that it remains of Public interest and would support an independent review and adjudication by the Local Ombudsman https://www.lgo.org.uk/ on the matter of the loss of the land formerly known as the Shade common.