WINCHESTER City Council is facing its 20th serious legal challenge in just seven years as campaigners press ahead with action over the proposed disposal of the River Park Leisure Centre.

In March, the authority took the controversial decision to hand over ownership of part of the recreation ground to the University of Southampton - despite considerable backlash.

The Friends of River Park has since issued a claim for judicial review against the council's move to dispose of the site of the old leisure centre. This signals the 20th legal challenge civic chiefs have faced since the Silver Hill 'debacle' in 2015.

A spokesperson for the council says it considered all the relevant information before taking the decision and is 'confident' it would be upheld should the matter proceed to a high court hearing.

The Friends, who met last Tuesday, claim that the council has acted unlawfully, unreasonably and has failed to take into account that entering into an agreement to lease the RPLC site would constitute a breach of the statutory trust on which the authority holds the land for public recreational use.

The disposal of the land is to a 'commercial entity', which the group says also contravenes the purpose that was agreed when the plot was originally conveyed, and has been dubbed 'plainly wrong'.

The Friends argue that, by agreeing to dispose of this public recreational land, the council has committed itself to the grant of a 150-year lease which it is powerless to stop.

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Campaigners say it is also clear that the council will have made an agreement requiring itself to enter into a lease which places no restriction on the use that the tenant can make of the land – in other words, councillors have made a decision to part with the land for 150 years and, for all practical purposes, cannot stop what it could be used for.

Speaking on behalf of Friends of River Park, Rose Burns said: “This is clearly inconsistent with the council’s duties as trustee and it’s completely contrary to the original wishes of the vendor, and restrictions laid down when the land was sold for a public park for recreational use, over 120 years ago. On reading the terms of the lease, the public will be excluded from the land for 35 years, the landlord has 'virtual freehold', and the council loses control of the land and cannot, as landowner, stop itself, as planning authority, from granting planning consent for whatever is demanded by the new owner."

Ms Burns says even when attempting to 'right the council’s wrongs' back in January, when the Friends flagged up the failure to advertise the disposal of the land, the council chose then only to advertise a third of the intended area for disposal which she says was 'misleading and unlawful'.

Some 438 people wrote letters of objection following what the Friends say was a defective advertisement, and the majority were responded to with a pro forma letter from the Lib Dem authorities' leader - which largely failed to address most of the issues raised.

“To change the use in such a way from public recreation, the council is required to ‘appropriate’ the land – a legal term for transferring the allocation of land by a local authority from one purpose to another – before entering into any agreement," Ms Burns said.

"This involves asking the public for their views in advance, as well as complying with a complex legal procedure. They have failed to do any of that.”

A city council spokesperson said: “The development proposal replaces the derelict leisure centre and part of the car park next to it with state of the art education and employment opportunities and new community facilities next to the much loved North Walls park. Both the bowls club and the skate park are protected.

"The council considered all the relevant information at its Cabinet meeting of March 9, 2022 and we are confident that should the matter proceed, the high court will uphold our decision. We will ensure the court are provided with all the relevant information to assist their decision making.”

To read more about Friends of River Park, or to donate to their campaign, visit:

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