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Enfield Council accused of ‘gaslighting’ residents over Whitewebbs lease to Spurs

James Cracknell reports from day one of the much-anticipated judicial review case brought by Sean Wilkinson against the council

The Royal Courts of Justice and (inset) Sean Wilkinson at Whitewebbs
The Royal Courts of Justice and (inset) Sean Wilkinson at Whitewebbs

Enfield Council has been accused of “gaslighting” residents over its decision to lease half of Whitewebbs Park to Tottenham Hotspur.

The accusation was made at the High Court in central London today (Tuesday 6th) on the first day of a three-day judicial review hearing brought by local resident and Friends of Whitewebbs Park chair Sean Wilkinson – made possible thanks to a crowdfunding campaign that’s raised more than £22,000.

Sean’s lawyer Alex Goodman KC opened proceedings by setting out the grounds on which the claim was being brought against the council, with Tottenham Hotspur Football Club (THFC) listed as an ‘interested party’ in the case.

The court heard that just a week prior to the start of the judicial review the council had finally conceded Whitewebbs Park was held in “statutory trust for the public” after spending years claiming the land it wished to lease to THFC was “ordinary open space”.

In his opening arguments, Goodman seized on this admission to claim the council had been “misleading” residents.

Referring to a report presented to an overview and scrutiny committee meeting last July which sought to justify the lease, the KC told the court: “There was no advice given to committee members that the effect of this [the lease] was to extinguish the public rights to access, and instead it [Whitewebbs Park] was presented as being equivalent to ordinary open space.”

The council’s “omission” of statutory access rights in its communications around the lease was a consistent theme in Goodman’s case. Referring to the 2021 decision to pick the THFC proposal for a women’s football academy as its preferred option, following a tendering exercise, the KC said the council had claimed Whitewebbs Park Golf Course had only been “accessible to golfers” instead of acknowledging the public’s rights to access.

“This is an active misdirection,” he argued. “The council claimed there was no right of public access – that the proposal would be enhancing public rights to access rather than extinguishing it.”

If built, THFC’s proposed women’s and girls’ football academy will be fenced off from the rest of the park. Quoting a council claim that the lease would see “increased and improved public access”, Goodman added: “Had the council understood it was extinguishing public rights it would have been an Orwellian description.”

But the council did eventually concede that Whitewebbs was held in public trust, after dogged research by Sean to prove this had been the case ever since the park was originally created nearly a century ago. “The council has now abandoned its position,” Goodman explained, “but has only done so under the pressure of this case and the claimant [Sean] going into the archives”.

The KC described the council’s long-held denial of full public access rights at Whitewebbs as a “failure of governance” and continued: “The council’s defence is that although it didn’t recognise it was selling statutory trust land, it acted as if it did.”

At this point the judge presiding over the case, Mr Justice Mould, appeared to agree with the KC and said it was “in essence a legal error” not to advise councillors of this when the decision was debated.

Goodman continued to hammer home his case and said: “The council is gaslighting the public, because they are losing public access rights yet being told that their access rights are being enhanced.”

He then concluded by suggesting that had the council “understood what was going on” it could have found a way to lease the park “without running roughshod over public rights to such an extent”.

Further grounds for the case against the council include the submission that the local authority “cannot lawfully dispose of the park in the way proposed” and that the council “cannot use the funds it plans to generate from the sale in the way it proposes”.

Goodman will continue to present his case tomorrow morning (Wednesday 7th), while the council and THFC’s defence will begin to be heard in the afternoon.

Meanwhile, Mr Justice Mould has said that he will not be issuing his judgement immediately on Thursday (8th) when the hearing concludes but will instead take more time to consider the arguments.

More information about the details of Sean’s case against the council can be found via the Public Interest Law Centre, which is representing him:
Visit
pilc.org.uk/news/keep-public-land-in-public-hands/