The case of Greenweb Ltd v Wandsworth London Borough Council involved what might possibly have been the most expensive patch of grass in Britain, being a plot of land comprising 0.22 acres or 9,583 square feet that formed part of the Fred Wells Gardens at Battersea in south-west London. It was once the site of a row of Victorian terraced houses, numbers 9 to 15 Orville Road to be precise, until that is, they were struck by what is thought to have been a V1 flying bomb during the closing stages of World War II.
After the war the council duly cleared the site and simply subsumed the site within the neighbouring Fred Wells Gardens. Unfortunately the piece of land in question remained in private ownership and in 2001 it was acquired by an investment firm called Greenweb Ltd for the sum of £30,000, after which the new owners applied for planning permission to build on the site. The London Borough of Wandsworth refused to grant planning permission being as how it was now part of a public park, and so Greenweb then took legal action against the council in a bid to force them to acquire the site since they were not permitted to use it for any commercial purpose.
Wandsworth Borough Council did not necessarily object to the principle of acquiring the land from Greenweb at the open market value, given that the site was only worth about £15,000 as part of a public open space. However the Lands Tribunal ruled that Wandsworth Borough Council were actually obliged to pay the sum of £1.6 million to acquire the site. Their decision was based on the stipulations of the Land Compensation Act 1961 which gave automatic planning permission for the rebuilding of houses which had been destroyed by enemy action during World War II. Since there was no doubt that the land had once been the site of a row of terraced houses that had indeed been destroyed by enemy action, Greenweb had the right to rebuild houses on the site, and was thus entitled to be compensated by Wandsworth Borough Council who had prevented them from so doing.
Naturally the Council were not best pleased at being obliged to pay around £167 per square foot for a patch of parkland and Councillor Maurice Heaster, Wandsworth's cabinet member for corporate resources, stepped forward to claim that this was a perfect example of why the law is sometimes regarded as an ass, as the Council duly appealed against the ruling of the Lands Tribunal on the grounds that the law was "absurd".
The case duly came before the Court of Appeal where the three Appeal Court judges were sympathetic to the Council's plight; Lord Justice Richard Buxton described the situation as "utterly deplorable", Lord Justice John Thomas said it was all "highly regrettable", but as Lord Justice Stanley Burnton explained they were obliged "most reluctantly" to apply the law as it stood, and in their judgement published on the 28th August 2008 duly confirmed the ruling by the Lands Tribunal.
In its defence Wandsworth Borough Council claimed that the Land Compensation Act 1961 was a "ticking time bomb that should be ditched", and that they repeatedly warned both civil servants and ministers, who had failed to do anything about the problem. As a result it was the local residents who would have to pay the price for this 'official inaction'. On the other hand, had Wandsworth Borough Council approached the owners of the land at any time prior to 2001, no doubt they could have acquired it for a good deal less than £1.6 million, and the case might serve as a lesson to public authorities not to simply take over other people's property without also taking steps to acquire proper legal ownership.
- High valuation assumption, Court of Appeal, Published August 28, 2008
Greenweb Ltd v Wandsworth London Borough Council, The Times, August 28, 2008
- Gordon Rayner, Council forced to pay £1.6m for scrap of land by 'absurd' WWII law, Daily Telegraph, 21 Sep 2008