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Campaigners send fresh pre-action protocol letter amid claims council offered no opportunity for public consultation over planned transfer of leisure centre site

A campaign group has sent a second judicial review pre-action protocol letter to Winchester City Council over plans to transfer the former River Park Leisure Centre and some of the surrounding land, including a skate park and an indoor bowls club, to Southampton University.

In February this year the council rescinded its original decision to lease the site to the university after receiving a pre-action letter from Friends of River Park claiming that the council should have advertised its intention to dispose of any parts of the site which are open space under s.123(2A), Local Government Act 1972.

A report by cabinet member for housing and asset management Kelsie Learney recommended “the decision is withdrawn and that the appropriate publicity that has been placed in both the Hampshire Chronicle and the Mid Hampshire Observer is approved”.

The decision to dispose of the land to the university was subsequently made at a Cabinet meeting on 9 March.

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Friends of River Park argues that the land is protected by the Open Spaces Act 1906 and the Local Government Act 1972, and should remain in public ownership for public recreation.

The group said on its website: "The residents of Winchester should decide what use or uses to which the site may be put. Winchester City Council simply acts as a statutory trustee of this land for the residents of Winchester. If the disposal is successful, this will deny the people of Winchester rights over the land, which has been protected for their recreational use for 120 years."

The area is designated “open space”, protected by statutory law and by a covenant dating back to 1902, it added.

The group also claimed that the university "will have ‘virtual freehold basis’, no restriction on selling the site on to another organisation, no obligation to repair (including during the initial 5-year period of its 150-year lease) and absolute discretion over its campus scheme. There is no guarantee of public access, and certainly none for the next 35 years."

In its latest pre-action protocol letter, sent on 29 April, Friends of River Park invited the council to retract the decision and pay the costs of the action. The council has 14 days to reply.

Friends of River Park has so far raised more than £7,600 towards an initial target of £10,000 for its action fund.

The Chairman of Friends of River Park, Sir Tony Walker, said: “If we are to have a say in the uses to which this exciting site is to be put, it is important that the public is consulted about the proposed loss of their land to a private, commercial entity. The Council has made a decision to dispose of the land. The Friends of River Park have now challenged that decision, in a letter threatening judicial review in the High Court, in order to ensure that the land remains in public ownership, for public recreational use”.

A spokesperson for Winchester City Council said: “The council has received a pre-application letter in respect of a decision made at Cabinet on March 9 2022. The council will always seek to constructively engage with this process and no application for judicial review has been made at this time."

Lottie Winson

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