Taxpayer left with £10,000 maintenance bill after council’s land ownership error

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The disputed footpath in Milford

MILFORD Parish Council have been paying for 30 years to maintain a piece of land in the village they never owned.

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The council have spent “at least £10,000” on employing a gardener to cut grass, hedgerows and keep an area tidy around land at the back and to the sides of The Boltons – a cul-de-sac near the seafront.

Parish clerk Graham Wells confirmed to the A&T that the council had only recently discovered they did not own the land behind The Boltons they had been paying for.

He said: “This has only come to light since residents wanted to purchase a small piece of it.

“We’ve employed a contractor to cut the hedgerows and grass on a regular basis, it’s cost probably in the region of £10,000 plus.

“We cannot get any of that money back so we are effectively writing it off.”

Mr Sharpe says the council did not believe there were any other similar pieces of land in Milford that they were paying to maintain when they didn’t own them.

The residents of The Boltons are now embroiled in a row over what was believed to be a public footpath leading from Ravens Way through The Boltons to Westover Road which now apparently does not exist.

The discovery was made around two years ago after the parish council were approached by a resident of The Boltons about the possibility of land around the cul-de-sac being purchased.

A resident of the Boltons told the A&T: “The land to the rear of some of the gardens was very overgrown even though the parish council had been paying a gardener to maintain it.

“It was also becoming a bit of a dumping ground for rubbish. There was also the issue of dog owners allowing their pets to foul the area too. We felt if we owned it we could maintain it properly and take measures to ensure dogs were not allowed to use it as a toilet.

“Our intention was to purchase it and then decide among us as residents what exactly we would do with it but there was never any intention to close off what has been used as a footpath leading from Ravens Way to The Boltons along the back of one to four by a small group of people – even though there is no public right of way over it.

“What we want is for it to be properly maintained but we are under no obligation to do so at our expense, or have to pay public liability insurance in case someone using it hurts themselves. So to keep it open we wanted to know who was going to step in and do these things.”

The land is now owned by residents

The footpath has been offered to Milford parish council as Hampshire Highways have already indicated they do not want it.

A member of Cotton Land Management Ltd. said: “It is in a bad state of repair in several places and a trip hazard. We do not want to pay for the upkeep of the path and are worried that if we did that it would make us liable if someone injured themselves while using it.”

“It has been suggested to the council that the path be moved approximately one metre for safety which would be the most cost effective way forward.”

There is also a leave way running behind numbers five to seven owned by the electricity board which people have also been using as a footpath and cutting across the grassed area too.

It is now intended to move the water metre so that the leave way entrance can be blocked off and the path allowed to return to garden.

One former Boltons’ resident approached the council approximately two years ago, at the time the parish council turned the offer down and one councilor suggested the residents form a company and buy it all together.

Cotton Land Management Ltd was formed a few months ago.

After research by solicitors acting for both parties it was discovered, according to parish clerk Graham Wells, that in fact a transfer in the sixties from the developer who had built the houses in The Boltons to the council had never happened.

A  resident of the cul-de-sac said: “It belonged to the builder until his business had ceased to exist for ten years.

“It then went to the Duchy of Lancaster because the developer’s business was established in their area. They have now sold it to Cotton Land Management (MOS) Ltd. for a small sum although legal fees means we have spent in the region of £10-15,000 acquiring it and this is likely to double once fencing and maintaining have been factored in.

“We have not even decided exactly what we are going to do with it as there has not been a meeting of the residents yet.”

“We would like to keep the land to the rear of number seven, six and five open and have approached Milford Conservation Volunteers about planting flowers to attract butterflies and bees.

“What we don’t want is a dog loo, which people are using it as now. The other day my husband and I had to pick up 17 lots.”

Milford parish council believed they had become responsible for the upkeep of the land when they split from Lymington Town council who up until then had looked after it.

At a recent meeting of the parish council two local residents insisted that the footpaths from Ravens Way to Westover – the one behind houses 10, nine and eight in The Boltons plus the path from Ravens Way to Westover running behind numbers one to four The Boltons– were public and that they should be able to continue using it.

Resident John Hall told Councillors: “That path has been in use for 32 years. My wife does not drive and walks into town, 10 times in one day is her record. The traffic along Westover Road flows quite fast there and it is not that safe.

“Using the path is a safe way to go into town.”

John Roberts said of The Boltons residents buying the land: “I feel this could have more open to the public, there is no reason why not. I know an old lady who has been using the path for 25 years. I went along to it recently and the entrance to the path behind number ten was all blocked off.”

Cllr Ken Cameron claimed that Milford residents could still have the right to use the path saying: “If they have been using it for that amount of time they have established right of way and if anyone is putting anything in their way they should take it down.”

But it was pointed out that the lawyers have told them there is no right of way over what is now private land and the new owners were under no obligation to maintain it.

The council agreed to investigate what should be done about the footpath although several councillors pointed out that it would be expensive to maintain the footpath and purchase public liability insurance for it.

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