Rettendon Parish Council wins legal battle over control of Bell Field

A parish council has won its case against a ‘Lord of the Manor’ in a High Court battle to decide who has ultimate control of a disputed piece of land.

The High Court, which heard arguments in mid July between Rettendon Parish Council and “self-governing” trustees, including parish councillor Roy Hart, who became ‘Lordship of the Manor of Rettendon’ in 1979, has ruled that it can appoint its own trustees to administer the recreation fields opposite the Rettendon Bell, known as Bell Field.

The longstanding dispute between certain members of the parish council, a group known as the Rettendon Bell Fields Trust, on the ability of the parish council’s claim to appoint new trustees.

Leader of Rettendon Parish Council, Councillor Mark Fleming, contended that the parish council is responsible for the ongoing management of the trust, not those few members who have argued that they are the legitimate trustees.

Cllr Hart had argued that responsibility for the management of two charities concerned – Allotment for the Exercise and Recreation and Allotment for the Labouring Poor – was passed to him and the other trustees who were appointed in 2013.

The dispute can be traced back to then when the parish council changed from acting as the sole trustee to electing named councillors as trustees, and by a group of people – “managing trustees” – asserting that they have somehow acquired the authority to be self-governing.

The parish council contended that, even if it has power to appoint trustees, such appointment is for a maximum of four years and that only the council can either re-appoint existing trustees or appoint further trustees.

Cllr Hart’s contention, based upon the advice of solicitors Birkett Long, is that once trustees are appointed, they and they alone have the power to appoint further trustees.

However Mr Justice Zacaroli said that the power to appoint trustees for four years could not possibly be construed as a power to be exercised only once. Thus, on the expiry of a four-year term, it is the council and the council alone that has the power to appoint for a further four years.

In conclusion the Mr Zacaroli said: “I conclude that the council has the power…to appoint others to be trustees of the charities, but that any such appointment is limited to a period of four years and it is the council alone that has the power to appoint further trustees, whether at the end of the relevant four-year term or to fill any vacancies in the interim.

“Mr Hart expressed the wish that I should come up with some solution or scheme that was fair in all the circumstances. There is clearly a substantial degree of mistrust between the present body of councillors on the council and Mr Hart and at least some of his fellow trustees. Mr Hart, in particular, does not trust the council’s intentions in relation to Bell Fields. The council, for its part, has accused Mr Hart and the other defendants of misconduct in relation to their stewardship of the charities.

“My powers, however, are limited to resolving this dispute. The council’s concerns over the past conduct of the trustees is a matter, if pursued at all, to be dealt with on another occasion.

“As to Mr Hart’s concerns over the council’s plans for Bell Fields, subject to the limitations imposed on the holders of land subject to charitable trusts by the law generally, that is largely a local government issue. In particular, it is not within the power of this court to order (as Mr Hart suggested in an email sent after the hearing) that the situation be resolved by a full parish referendum.

“The conclusion I have reached in this judgement simply means that the solution preferred by Mr Hart and the other defendants – namely that the management of Bell Fields and the charities has been permanently taken away from the council by their appointment as trustees – is wrong in law.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter