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Inquiry into village green status for Bunyards Farm, near Maidstone has begun

A public inquiry brought by campaigners fighting to preserve a stretch of former farmland against hundreds of homes being built there began this morning.

They are seeking protected village green status for Bunyards Farm, near Maidstone which developers are looking at to build not 435 houses which have outline planning permission.

The land at Bunyards Farm which could be declared a Village Green
The land at Bunyards Farm which could be declared a Village Green

The case being heard before an independent inspector was put together by members of MERlin (Medway Ecological Riverine Link) and volunteers.

Campaigners claim the land has been in common use by dog walkers, kite flyers and berry pickers for two decades, between 2001 and 2021, the time frame required for village green status under the Commons Act 2006.

The applicants must also demonstrate the landowner did not make it plain to the public they were not allowed to use the site.

Over time, with large-scale housing developments homes built in the Maidstone and Tonbridge and Malling boroughs, Bunyards Farm has become the last green space in the corridor at Allington.

Representing the applicants, Duncan Edwards said: "The influx (of people) brought in lots of young, active people, often with children.

"These people tended to be professionals, working hard to provide for their families and also needing local space to use for their leisure activities.

"The new and existing residents joined in making good use of the site to get exercise and fresh air, exercise their pets and enjoy nature."

Fences were not maintained and as the landowner failed to inform residents they should not use the land, residents' use "flourished", said Mr Edwards.

In his opening statement, he added: "There were always open entrances to the site and low level agricultural activity (such as grass cutting) did not interrupt the residents' open use of the land.

"Where well-trodden paths were used, these formed a network connecting with minor tacks and junctions offering choice of route and direction for the user.

"It is therefore suggested use can be properly classified as for lawful sports and pastimes in accordance with the Commons Act."

Inspector Annabel Graham Paul spent most of the morning listening to discussions about gaps in the fence which once stood at the 45 acre site.

Angela Poletti gave evidence at the inquiry today
Angela Poletti gave evidence at the inquiry today

Douglas Edwards KC, acting for the landowning Andrew Cheale Will Trust and developer BDW Trading Ltd, in cross-examining resident Angela Poletti suggested access points in the fence were a result of vandalism.

Mrs Poletti, whose house backs onto the the land, said: "I don't believe they have been vandalised - I believe they fell down in disrepair."

Mr Edwards KC said the land was used by the Cheale family as pasture to keep cattle over the age of 13 months before they were processed for slaughter.

He said that the land was last used "intensively" in 1998 until the BSE 'mad cow disease' crisis and the Cheales losing a cattle processing contract.

But the land was used for other activities such as horse grazing and hay-making.

For more than a month in 2003, after a fire at another plot of land owned by the Cheales, cattle were moved onto the Bunyards Farm plot, said Mr Edwards KC.

Mrs Poletti, who uses the land for walking dogs, bird-watching and picking wild berries since she moved in in 2002, said she had no recollection of that, saying she may have been on holiday.

There was much discussion about the state of an access point, with Mr Edwards KC suggesting a gap deliberately created by damaging the existing fence.

Mr Poletti replied: "It's (the gap) been there as long as I have been in the house. I never saw anyone vandalise it (the fence) - I never saw anyone cut it."

An aerial view of the land taken in 2000, just before the start of the relevant 20 year period
An aerial view of the land taken in 2000, just before the start of the relevant 20 year period

Mr Edwards KC objected to Mrs Poletti's repeated use of the world "dilapidated" to describe the upkeep of the fence.

Another resident Edward Musgrave was asked if he had ever seen the landowner repair fences.

He replied: "I didn't even know who the landowner was."

Kent County Council is the relevant local authority which deals with village green status.

The inquiry at County Hall in Maidstone is expected to last for four days before the inspector considers her recommendation.

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