BATTLES over land use have hit a major charity donor in Durham city, a public inquiry has heard.

The Durham City Freemen give hundreds of pounds to a range of good causes every year, with cash raised from its historic interests in the city.

But bosses at the organisation, which is attempting to halt Durham County Council’s (DCC) plans for a car park on protected land at the Sands to serve its new £50 million HQ, claim disputes with the local authority have hampered its philanthropic efforts.

“The land for the car park is a modest area of the wider Sands, the Freemen have common rites of grazing going back for centuries, and they have been recorded since at least 1860,” said Nicola Allen, a planning law specialist acting for the City of Durham Parish Council and the Freemen.

“These rights are important to the freedmen, as they are reflected and recognised in payments and, of course, the money is applied for charitable purposes in Durham.”

Allen was speaking at the third day of a public inquiry into an application to strip the site, formerly a coach park, of its protected ‘common land’ status.

DCC’s application would see a 0.17-hectare portion of the Sands stripped of its common land status, with an alternative site more than 10 times larger offered at Aykley Heads as a replacement.

Philip Wills, the Freemen’s clerk, told the inquiry ‘considerable sums’ had been spent on legal costs following disputes with the county council in recent years, limiting the organisation’s budget for charitable donations.

But Stephen Whale, acting for DCC, insisted the car park plans would not directly affect the Freemen’s finances.

He said: “At the moment [the Freemen] surrender their right to graze in return for money.

“If the grazing right is transferred to the replacement land at Aykley Heads, they can again surrender that right for money, as they have done for over 100 years.”

He added: “If the application is granted, it will not cause the Freeman any financial loss.”

County bosses have defended their process for attempting to secure permission to build on protected land.

Durham County Council (DCC) is currently defending its application to de-register part of the Sands site, in Durham City, as ‘common land’ to make way for a car park.

Giving evidence to a government assessor, it has insisted it sought to secure planning permission for its controversial new £50 million HQ before applying to strip the area of its special status to avoid accusations of pre-judging the decision.

“The county council was the applicant for planning permission for the new HQ in development and it was also the decision maker as local planning authority,” said Stephen Whale, a planning law specialist acting for DCC.

“It decided to apply for de-registration and exchange regarding the common land after planning permission was granted because it did not want to give any impression that the outcome of the planning application was in any way predetermined.

“It was not predetermined – the planning commission was granted on April 1, 2019, the common land application is dated August 22, 2019.”

Whale was speaking today (Thursday, April 29) at the third day of a public inquiry into the application to strip the site, formerly a coach park, of its common land status.

He added attempts to remove the protections had also been delayed by a bid for a judicial review of the HQ plans by the City of Durham Parish Council.

The question of why the county council processed its planning application before seeking to remove the common land status, was posed by Jean Crowden, a registered objector taking part in the inquiry.

The inquiry has now adjourned and is expected to resume for at least three more days in May.