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Forest of Dean, UK community farmers resist land grab

A barricade tower at the entrance of Yorkley Court Farm, Gloucestershire, UK

ON one side is a millionaire land-grabber propped up by fellow rich landowners, councillors, a judge, planning officers, freemasons and a recently retired police inspector... and on the other a group of gardeners of Yorkley Court Community Farm backed by much of the wider community. The siege is on now, which side will prevail?

[Skip this article and go straight to the 86-page PDF book detailing the saga: https://fodsamizdat.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/survival1.pdf ]

The Forest of Dean, a heart-shaped wooded land between two rivers Severn and Wye, thought of by locals as "between England and Wales" has a proud history stretching back centuries of resisting land-grabbers, which continues.

In the past five years, the community has successfully defended the public forest from two UK Government attempts to dispose of it - and the rest of the English Public Forest Estate - to privateers. The Tory MP, Mark Harper, in early 2011 tried to parcel the Forest of Dean off to a private trust. The total supporting his idea would probably not have extended beyond two figures. He was escorted away from his own public meeting by police in February 2011, such was the fierce opposition.

The man rumoured to be in place to head that aborted trust, a multi-millionaire landowner called Brian Bennett, is now at war with much of the populace thanks to his attempts to force a group of so-called "eco-farmers" off a previously derelict tract of land. (He has already made himself unpopular with a number of other land-grabs in the locality.)

Bennett, the owner of a "business village", several "solar farms" (ie fields full of glass and metal), and mooted housing development sites just beyond the threshold of the hallowed, still public, Forest of Dean, initially in 2012 seemed to be going all out to befriend the Reclaim The Fields gardener and food sovereignty activists when they started clearing the brambles, planting crops and putting up yurts and treehouses on a strip of the 200-acre Yorkley Court Farm, between the small town of Lydney and village of Yorkley in Gloucestershire (about one mile from the edge of the Forest of Dean itself). He brought wine and heavy plant machinery so they could clear rubble and prepare the ground.

The farmers now believe he helped them get set up so he could buy the land for a reduced price from the solicitor who had claimed 'adverse possession' of it - in 2013, he snapped up a £2 million piece of real estate for £755,000. Last July he surprised them by engaging a team of "common law" bailiffs to break into the farmhouse, backed by a security firm and an informal private army of hired muscle recruited from local pubs by fellow landowners. After a 58-hour stand-off during which the occupiers, helped by locals, forced the bailiffs and security off the land, and prevented the police from taking sides, the farmers got an injunction against Bennett and the solicitor, Richard Tolson.

Then, in February, a county court judge granted Bennett possession of the land, despite a pending Land Registry tribunal. The farmers were told to leave last Thursday (March 12, 2015) but instead built a series of impressive barricades, enlisted the village's support at a meeting held at the Bailey Inn in Yorkley, and on Sunday held their community open gardening day as usual.

Those on the land enjoy widespread support from the people of the Forest of Dean because they have practiced what they preach - they have helped folks with their gardens, they have set up a food hub where producers can sell their veg at supermarket-beating prices, and they have a vision of sustainable living and food growing which, if they were allowed to carry on in peace, could feed the entire populace.

And also locals know there is something very dodgy going on with the land ownership and the support Bennett enjoys from all those in his pocket, and the pillars of the local ruling class. The last confirmed owner died without direct male heirs about a century ago, but since the 1980s a gaggle of Bristol-based solicitors have collected rents from tenant farmers purportedly on behalf of a trust. A trust which may well not really exist. In 2010, the solicitors hired a land agent to kick off most of the tenants, start trashing the land and intimidating and threatening walkers (there are five public footpaths running through the farm).

In the midst of this, a police inspector (who recently took early retirement then unsuccessfully stood as a Conservative in a council byelection) reported the farmers to the council, and without following due process, an enforcement officer issued them with an eviction notice. He had to withdraw it after they insisted they had been given no opportunity to apply for planning for their yurts, tree-houses, etc, but then - despite them getting unanimous backing from their parish council - the district council turned them down for spurious reasons.

One of the solicitors collecting rents from former tenants moved to Portugal after apparently being struck off for professional misconduct, while his former partner registered "adverse possession" of the land with the Land Registry. (Incredibly, if there are no known owners of a piece of land, someone with the know-how and connections can simply claim it as theirs). The Reclaim the Fields group on the land are challenging the possession claim, which should declare Bennett's acquisition null and void.

A supporter of the farmers, genealogist Gail Stacey, has managed to track down descendants of the last recorded owner, and some of them have been down to visit and offer their support - and permission for the food-growers to stay. They are contesting Bennett's claim of ownership.

In the meantime, they are dug in for a long siege and gratefully accepting help and supplies. See their website for the latest situation: https://yorkleycourt.wordpress.com/yorkley-court-community-farm/

In conjunction with the farmers, local resident historians and investigators have assembled the whole saga and history of the site, which makes for fascinating reading. Due to a number of people having had their cars broken into and tampered with and threatened by Bennett's henchmen and hired hands, at this stage the authors wish to remain anonymous.

But the 86-page book Survival is essential reading and has been made freely available online: https://fodsamizdat.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/survival1.pdf

Pictures by Mark Turner aka One Call Cabs (taken on March 12, 2015 - first day of the siege)

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Posted By

Jambalaya
Mar 18 2015 17:22

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Jambalaya
Mar 20 2015 15:48

Update from the farm:

Callout for a show of public support on Thursday 26th 9:30 am

- spread the word!

The date we have been given for when county court bailiffs will come to evict the farm is

Thursday 26th March at 10am

We believe it is unlikely that they will actually try to evict on this day, but we expect they will at least show up.

It would be great if lots of people are outside the gate when they come, to show them how much support there is for the community farm.

Lets stand together to tell this property developer that he can't profit at the expense of the local community.

Gather at 9:30 outside the gate with the tower.

Bring friends, banners, things to make music and noise.

We will provide tea and coffee, bring snacks to share.

Please spread the word, and hope to see you there!