Victory for the common people

LORNA MARSH Emotional scenes broke out in a courtroom yesterday after villagers won their two-year bitter battle to stop the local squire taking their common land - and were told he would have to pay them more than £55,000.

LORNA MARSH

Emotional scenes broke out in a courtroom yesterday after villagers won their two-year bitter battle to stop the local squire taking their common land - and were told he would have to pay them more than £55,000.

Norwich County Court heard how baron's son Robert Harbord-Hamond tried to make some of those who had used Hanworth Common for years stump up tens of thousands of pounds to continue to access their own homes and graze their cattle.

He also put up a barbed wire fence around the 35 acres in an attempt to take control of the land which he claimed as part of his large estate.

But in a dramatic finale to what Judge Patrick O'Brien dubbed a two-year “cause célèbre” trial the Hanworth commoners were told they held the rights to the land “hands down” and that Mr Harbord-Hamond would have to pay them all their costs.

The judge also made an order banning Mr Harbord-Hamond from “interfering” with the management of the common, from driving on it and parking his car, as he had done without complaint from the commoners for 25 years.

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Judge O'Brien told the defendant that he was only allowed to walk across it as any member of the public.

When the judge ruled in the commoners' favour most of the 25 villagers who had packed the public gallery - half the adult population of the small community near Cromer - broke down in tears.

The court heard that when Mr Harbord-Hamond inherited his family's Suffield estate in 2004 he set about trying to take over the management and ownership of the common on which the claimants had grazed cattle and used as a right of way with his predecessors' permission for decades.

In November 2004, Judge O'Brien said Mr Harbord-Hamond, 42, had written to a villager demanding £5,000 per year, or a lump sum of £50,000, to cut across the common to get to his house.

The next month he wrote to commons committee member Jean Price, demanding payment in respect of the past six years' grazing.

“He generously added the rider that if the last six years grazing fees weren't available he would have whatever money was left,” Judge O'Brien said.

The court also heard Mr Harbord-Hamond had threatened to seize cattle grazing on the land, and removed gates so the animals could escape.

Mr Harbord-Hamond argued he had “paper title” of the land despite his family having sold the lordship of the manor of Hanworth in 1990 to Michael Barclay, of Hanworth Hall, who was happy to let villagers keep the common if it turned out he did have ownership.

The parties contested whether ownership of the common had stayed within the family's Suffield Estate following the sale.

However the judge ruled not only that the common would have been part of the manor but that this was irrelevant as the villagers could claim ownership since 1986 - the statutory 12 years since they had held the title to it.

“The claimants have won hands down on every issue,” said the judge.

The Judge ordered Mr Harbord-Hamond to pay costs of £55,000 with an interim payment of £25,000 within 28 days.

After the hearing, Robert Corbishley, chairman of Hanworth Commons Management Committee, said: “It has been very emotional, we are just so pleased that justice has triumphed. For two years our lives were stolen from us as we tried to assert our rights.”