After a local charity erroneously fenced off a public open space in Hanwell, Ealing, tireless research efforts and the eventual use of a sledgehammer showcased the power of a local community in what was labelled Hanwell’s “Fencegate”.
In April 2019 the Charity of William Hobbayne, who help Hanwell residents in need or distress, decided to fence off an unregistered section of a park in St. Margaret’s Open Space – also known as Fox Meadow – by the River Brent which it neighboured.
With no prior warning given, Hanwell residents were shocked to find both the green space and a public footpath were blocked.
It was reported a neighbour who lives opposite to St. Margaret’s Open Space returned home from holiday to discover her view of the river was now completely obstructed.
The charity justified their actions by claiming British Waterways, who they purchased the land from, included the piece of unregistered land which was not owned by Ealing Council in their original sale.
However, after residents began digging into what this area’s land rights are, research showed the area of the park had been designated as a public open space and Grade 1 Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) by Ealing Council.
Also, an ordnance survey map from 1960 illustrated the boundary markings of this piece of land were exactly the same then as they are now.
As the charity failed to provide enough evidence of their ownership rights, the Land Registry rejected their claim of ownership to the land in August 2019.
Hanwell residents assumed their council would now step in after this was revealed, but according to Steven Toft, who lives in Hanwell, numerous emails to the Labour run council reportedly went unanswered.
Toft, an Open Spaces Society member, said: “Our Elthorne Ward councillors did little more than act as post-boxes to unresponsive council departments.
“On a personal level, I have been bitterly disappointed by our elected representatives.
“I would have expected at least some moral outrage, especially from Labour councillors, at a private landowner enclosing Public Open Space and excluding the public from its use.”
Taking matters into their own hands, nearby residents began to manually take down some of the fence panels later that month to open back up the public footpath.
Eventually, the legal department of Ealing Council agreed the Charity of William Hobbayne had no legal claim to the land.
The council then agreed they would order the charity to take down the remains of the fence, but according to Hanwell residents nothing happened.
It would take until March 2021 when, after further research by residents found the fence encroached onto the towpath land owned by the Canal River Trust, the Trust sent two men with sledgehammers to demolish the rest of the fence.
Loud cheers could be heard from the neighbours as they watched the men at work.
Now, bar the odd broken fence panel, public access has been fully restored to the park area.
Alistair Mitton, who lives nearby and was a Liberal Democrat candidate for Hanwell Broadway, said: “Whilst I am very supportive of the excellent work the Hobbayne charity does locally they, like everybody, should work with rather than against the community.
“It was clear from the research done by the locals that they didn’t have title to the land and that their attempt to take it over was heavy handed, causing distress and was potentially undermining attempts to have the area designated a Local Nature Reserve.”
The Trustees of the Charity of William Hobbayne responded, saying the reason for this confusion and overlook of the piece of land in question was due to the Canal and River Trust’s take over of British Waterways at the time which meant land records were being relocated.
They stated: “The charity was led to believe that this oversight would soon be corrected and, on this basis, sought to enclose the land, with the Canal and River Trust’s prior knowledge (and that of the Council), while the matter was resolved.
“Unfortunately the fence (which did not breach any regulations) was later damaged and has now been removed.
“The charity accepts that its actions have generated strong local feelings and regrets that it did not explain these actions as well as it might have done beforehand.
“Nevertheless, the purpose of seeking to acquire this small extra piece of land was solely to enhance the use of the existing community gardens.”
Numerous people across social media have praised the independent action taken by local residents and warned other areas about the importance of protecting public green spaces.
Katie Boyles, who lives near to St. Margaret’s Open space and is the organiser of the Warren Farm Nature Reserve campaign, said: “The green spaces we at times take for granted can face threats in many forms and from some surprising and unexpected organisations.
“The lesson here is that every green space matters and it truly takes a community that cares to protect it from encroachments.”
It was announced on 29 April by Ealing Council’s leader, Peter Mason, that St. Margaret’s Open Space is in the process of receiving Local Nature Reserve designation along with three other meadows at Brent River Park.
A spokesperson for the Ealing Council cabinet office has said: “There was previously some confusion over ownership of this piece of land.
The council is clear, however, that it is within the council’s ownership and, whilst opportunity was given to prove otherwise, no evidence has been provided to the contrary.
“Therefore the council continues to maintain the land as part of St Margaret’s Open Space, and is in the process of formally registering the land as part of its registered title.”