Roman Fell, one of the areas in the case, seen from Murton Fell. Photo: OSS

Roman Fell, one of the areas in the case, seen from Murton Fell. Photo: OSS

Campaigners have begun their second push in the battle against the Ministry of Defence over three commons in the north Pennines.

The Defence Secretary has applied to deregister common land at Burton, Hilton and Murton Fells, in the Cumbrian North Pennines area of outstanding natural beauty.

Opponents of the move said it would end centuries, and possibly even a millennium, of the land’s tradition as commons.

The Open Spaces Society said the bid by the MoD threatens to be the largest ‘inclosure’ of commons since those that took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. It said: “It is unclear and ominous why the landowner, the Ministry of Defence, wishes to proceed with this.”

The society, along with the Foundation for Common Land, the Friends of the Lake District, local commoners and parish councils, said it is opposed to the applications, and believes them to be entirely unnecessary.

It said the latest move is part of further steps by the Ministry of Defence to increase its control over the Warcop commons and erode customary hill-farming practices.

A public inquiry in September was adjourned and reopened on Tuesday in Kendal. The OSS is being represented at the by counsel George Laurence QC and Ross Crail of New Square Chambers who, it said, are acting for the society on near pro bono terms.

The legal arguments are complicated and centre on commons definitions. The OSS said: “In 2003, the Secretary of State paid out over £7m to the commoners to extinguish their rights of common, rights which had exercised over many generations by hill farmers in Warcop and neighbouring areas.

“The Secretary of State said that the compulsory purchase of the rights was necessary to afford it greater and more flexible use of the Warcop commons as part of the danger area lying above the ranges.

“At the time, the Secretary of State gave a commitment not to deregister the Warcop commons – that is, not to remove them from the register of commons held by the council – even though the rights had been terminated.”

The inquiry’s inspector Alan Evans has been hearing evidence about whether the Warcop commons, amounting to about 45 sq km (17 sq miles), had ceased to be ‘waste land of the manor’ when the rights of common were extinguished in 2003. Objectors said this means that the Secretary of State must show that the commons were no longer characteristic of typical upland commons, and that they had ceased to be ‘open, uncultivated and unoccupied’.

The OSS said: “The Secretary of State says that he now ‘occupies’ the commons; the society argues that the commons are now more desolate and unoccupied than at any time in recorded history – and that if the Secretary of State is correct, there is not a common left in England which remains ‘waste land of the manor’.”

The three commons lie south-east of High Cup Nick. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

The three commons lie south-east of High Cup Nick. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

The land in question lies south-east of High Cup Nick, close to the course of the Pennine Way.

Hugh Craddock, a case officer with the Open Spaces Society, said: “It beggars belief that the Ministry of Defence continues to pour taxpayers’ money into pursuing paper changes to its management of the Warcop commons.

“It spent £7m in 2003 on buying out the rights of common, plus far more on legal and professional advice, and holding a public inquiry into the compulsory purchase. Even so, it gave an undertaking not to deregister the common – but now it has resiled from its undertaking, and has come back for what’s left: the registration of the land as common land.

“If it succeeds in deregistering the common, this splendid and extensive land will lack any protection against whatever plans the ministry hatches for its future. Any commitments given today will be no more valuable than the undertakings which the ministry has already breached.

“The Ministry tells us that it no longer feels confident about the future of the Warcop training estate in the light of the Commons Act 2006’s provision for creating commons councils. But it is misguided, and it simply won’t listen to reason.

“No-one can understand why it is driven to pursue these applications, and in the absence of a plausible explanation, it is hardly surprising that people speculate on whether the ministry is hiding plans for a radically different future for the Warcop training estate.

“If these applications are granted, it will lead to the deregistration of over one per cent of the common land in England, the first inclosure on this scale since the mid-19th century. And this from a Government whose policy is that: ‘our stock of common land and greens is not diminished so that any deregistration of registered land is balanced by the registration of other land of at least equal benefit’.”

The public inquiry is expected to run until Friday.

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