Report from Dorchester-on-Thames Parish Council: Fences on Bishops Court Farm

The below report was originally distributed with the December 2016 edition of the Dorchester News

Report from Dorchester-on-Thames Parish Council: Fences on Bishops Court Farm

1. On 6th October 2016 the Parish Council was contacted by Mr Scott Ruck on behalf of Mr Andrew Reid, the prospective purchaser of Bishops Court Farm. Contact was made by telephone calls to both the Clerk and the Chairman.

2. Mr Ruck explained that Mr Reid, who already has a farm at Mill Hill in north London, intends to keep a significant quantity of sheep on the land and has no interest in any property development other than to the Farm and the existing farm buildings which will be mostly redundant. Mr Reid’s immediate priority was to erect fencing to separate the footpaths and bridleways that cross the Farm from the fields in which the sheep will graze.

3. Although the purchase had not yet completed, due to the presence of a river cruiser moored on land which is part of the Farm, Mr Reid and his team had been on site that day (6th October) and met with Arthur McEwan-James, the Field Footpaths Officer from Oxfordshire County Council (OCC), to discuss all issues concerning the several Rights of Way across the property including the Thames Path which is a ‘National Trail’. Apparently there have already been conversations with the Environment Agency concerning the boundary along the River Thames.;

4 The footpaths and bridleways that have now been fenced are those that are published on the Definitive Rights of Way Map, most recently updated in February 2006, which can be viewed, along with many other pieces of relevant information, at https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/cms/content/definitive-map-and-statement-online

5. On 6th October Mr Ruck told the Clerk that Mr Reid is keen to establish a good relationship with the Parish Council and to have a face-to-face meeting soon (possibly in private rather than at a regular PC meeting but the options are open at this stage). At the time of writing this report (23/11) the Parish Council’s meeting with Mr Reid has not taken place but direct email contact has been established between Chris Hill, Parish Council Chairman, and Mr Reid; and Chris Hill, together with some Councillors and the Clerk, has met Mr Luke Winham MRICS, Mr Reid’s estate surveyor. Another meeting with Mr Winham is expected w/c 28 th November.

6 On 20 th October the Parish Council was told by Historic England that the Inspector of Monuments Chris Welch would be making contact with Mr Reid to discuss the future of the Dyke Hills which are a Scheduled Ancient Monument, in fact ‘SAM1’.

7. On Thursday 3rd November several residents contacted the Parish Council to express dismay at the fencing work which had commenced upon the farmland between the end of Wittenham Lane and the River Thame/River Thames confluence and then along the Thames Path towards Day’s Lock. In the knowledge that managing Rights of Way is the responsibility of the County Council, some of these residents also contacted County Cllr Lorraine Lindsay-Gale.

8. The Parish Council arranged two site meetings to be held on 8th November. The first was with Luke Winham and the second was with Arthur McEwan-James (OCC) with his line manager James Blockley, Countryside Access Team Leader and County Cllr Lorraine Lindsay-Gale. At the meeting with Mr Winham, the Parish Council was represented by the Chairman, Cllr Keith Russell and the Clerk while at the second meeting they were joined by Cllr Mike Rimmer.

9. What we learned from Mr Luke Winham:

a. Mr Reid and his team have been told (by persons unknown) that there has been a long history of issues concerning the footpaths between members of the public and the previous owner of the land which they understand to be more akin to ‘a war’.

b. They have inspected the land and have been dismayed by the amount of dog excrement in the open fields. They are worried about the dangers that this poses to their sheep and wish to have fencing that will prevent dogs from entering the fields. They believe that several dog owners at present using the paths and fields do not have their dogs under control. They have also been surprised at the amount of litter that visitors have left behind them, some of which could harm the animals

c. Although sheepwill be the main residents, there may also be cattle and horses and even deer. Barbed wire fencing is necessary to control such animals.

d. There were some places where Mr Winham said it is possible that alterations to the line of the new fencing could be made and he took some photographs to discuss with colleagues. These included the area where the line of the path passes very close to the River Thame and the triangular shape that has been caused by a strict adherence to the Definite Map near ‘Blue Bridge’ across the Thame. Mr Winham also promised that hedges / trees which overhang the footpaths would be cut back but he emphasised that maintaining the surface of the bridleway/footpath itself is the responsibility of the County Council.

e. The intention is that sheep will graze on the Dyke Hills and that this area will in the near future be fenced off from public access. In fact, although residents and visitors have been walking on the Dyke Hills for as long as anyone can remember and beyond, there is no access to the Dyke Hills shown on the Definitive Map. Mr Winham indicated that Historic England would be pleased if the traditional public access to the Dyke Hills is brought to an end because this traffic is considered to be damaging the fabric of the Ancient Monument. The grazing of sheep, however, is expected to be beneficial.

f. Mr Winham said that in the field by Day’s Lock Mr Reid has agreed to provide a short-cut which links the Thames Path to the bridleway that comes across the bridge from Little Wittenham and runs towards the kissing gate.

10. What we learned from Mr Arthur McEwan-James and Oxfordshire County Council.

a. The County Council is responsible for managing only those paths which are shown on the Definitive Map. There are statutory minimum widths for rights of way which are 3 metres for a bridleway, 1.5 metres for a field edge footpath and 1 metre for a cross–field footpath.

b. In the case of the middle field between Blue Bridge and Day’s Lock Miss Bowditch received a payment from OCC to allow the land along the river bank across which there was the Right of Way an additional width of 2 metres. This agreement is binding in perpetuity and will be observed by Mr Reid. The agreement was made following the riverbank collapsing in several places.

c. Arthur McEwan-James confirmed that the lines of fencing so far installed follow guidelines about minimum widths that have been indicated to Mr Reid.

d. In some areas this takes the footpath along ground that is uneven and away from the established walking route because this is now behind a fence. Both the officers from OCC said that once this ground is walked the traffic will create a better surface. One of the Parish Councillors present raised the question of who would be liable should a member of the public have an accident which was caused by the path surface being unsafe

e.Members of the public who wish to report a footpath issue to the County Council can do so by telephone or, better still, by email attaching photographs https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/cms/content/report-issue-public-right-way.

f. Barbed wire should only be used on the inside of fence posts (the animal side) and where it is wrapped around a post the barbs on the outside should be removed or covered over. Strands of barbed wire should be protected either by a strand of plain wire running next to them or by a wooden rail. It is understood that the contractors are aware of this and that measures to protect the public will be taken before the work is completed.

g. It is possible to achieve a Modification to the Definitive Map but, due to the small number of OCC staff working on this task, it can take several years to be approved. For a full explanation see https://www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/cms/content/modifications-and-
diversions

h. Some residents who attended the Parish Council meeting on 9 th November were keen to start this Modification process and believe that there is ample evidence to support a claim that the Dyke Hills should be open for public access. They were not dissuaded by warnings about the length of this process.

11. At the regular monthly meeting of the Parish Council, held on Wednesday 9 th November, 29 residents attended to voice their concerns about the new fencing on the Farm and the Standing Order that ‘Public Participation’ should be limited to 15 minutes was suspended. Cllr Keith Russell explained to the meeting what role the Parish Council could play in representing their concerns and County Cllr Lorraine Lindsay-Gale was also present both to answer questions and to collect information to pass on to Arthur McEwan-James.

12. It was agreed that the Parish Council would communicate the concerns of the meeting to Mr Reid and keep residents informed about how the matter progressed. A report would be inserted with the December/January edition of Dorchester News. Those present at the meeting were invited to let the Clerk have their email addresses so that those with a special interest in this topic could receive regular communication. The Clerk will issue a similar invitation through Dorchester News.

13. Since the Parish Council meeting both the Chairman and County Cllr Lindsay-Gale have exchanged emails with Mr Reid and Mr Winham and by 17 th November it appeared that some concessions had been achieved regarding the route of the fence near the River Thame, some lengths of fencing not being barbed and the re-opening of the Dyke Hills for public access on a limited number of days. Mr Reid has, however, informed the Chris Hill that he has consulted and worked with the footpath officers both of the local authority and the Thames Path and they have both advised on and approved the fencing work. As to the barbed wire, Mr Reid says that when he first inspected the; farm he noted that there was already barbed wire in numerous locations.

14. On 19 th November Chris Hill was contacted by email from BBC Radio Oxford who had learned about the new fencing controversy from a listener and on the following day (Saturday 20 th ) Chris himself saw the fencing work that has recently occurred near Day’s Lock. Photographs of this work were taken later the same day and copied to all members of the Parish Council and County Cllr Lindsay-Gale, who forwarded them to Arthur McEwan-James. The photographs show that the new fencing along the river gives the Thames Path walker very little room to pass along, that in places the path is made even narrower by the overhang of vegetation growing from within the curtilage of Day’s Lock, and that in other places the path has a very narrow flat strip along the top of a steep slope towards the River Thames. Should this be the area about which BBC Radio Oxford’s listener has complained it is easy to see why. Those who visited Day’s Lock with Chris agreed there are several places that are dangerous and noted that the path, which seems narrower here than at any point so far inspected, is probably the most visited area of the whole stretch.

15. These photographs have now been sent to Mr McEwan-James for his comments and, pending the final resolution of this matter, Chris has told BBC Radio Oxford that a statement at this time would be neither appropriate nor helpful. Arthur McEwan – James is coming the village on the morning of Friday, 25 th November specifically to view the new fencing work in the area of Day’s Lock. He will also be meeting the Clerk and other representatives of the Council

16. Since 21 st November, the Clerk has been made aware that some residents have taken advantage of the procedure mentioned in paragraph 10(e) above to register complaints about the new fencing, especially where it crosses a route which the ground condition indicates has clearly been a much used pathway. These complaints are being dealt with by Arthur McEwan-James.

17. On 22nd November, following a site meeting with a freelance Rights of Way consultant (a former Countryside Officer with another County Council) Becky Waller had a meeting with Kate Ashbrook, General Secretary of the Open Spaces Society which is based in Henley-on-Thames www.oss.org.uk Becky and others have now set up an independent group of residents which is interested in achieving modifications to the Definitive Map and, possibly, applying for the registration of some areas, including the Dyke Hills, as open space to which the public should be allowed access. The Open Space Society, of which the Parish Council is a member, will be supporting Becky Waller’s group and has offered support to the Parish Council should it wish to pursue similar action. Becky can be contacted via rightsofwayDOT@gmail.com

18. Because this matter is clearly a topic in which many residents have an interest, the Clerk has set up a new Parish Council emailing list – ‘Footpaths & Rights of Way’ – so that news of the latest developments can be communicated relatively quickly and easily. The email addresses of subscribers will not be displayed and therefore remain confidential. Emails will include updates about path closures due to flooding, for example, and subscribers will also be supplied with a list of useful websites where maps and guides can be obtained. To join the list please contact the Clerk – parishclerk@dorchesteronthames.co.uk

This notice is dated 23rd November 2016 and has been prepared by Geoff Russell, Clerk to The Council, with assistance from colleagues.

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Posted on December 30, 2016 in Rights of Way

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