A DEVELOPER has been granted possession of a plot of land in Henley despite fears that it is crucial to the electrification of the town’s branch line.
The narrow strip of wooded land, between Newtown Road and Mill Lane, is about 200ft from a section of track where the work will be carried out and includes an embankment which supports a bridge over the railway.
Until recently it was unregistered, meaning there was no definitive record of who owned it, but Essex developer Henthames has successfully applied to the Land Registry to claim the title.
The firm bought the former LA Fitness gym in Newtown Road for £1.8million last year and is now seeking planning permission for an 80-bed care home.
It wanted the adjacent woodland, which neighbours say has served as an unofficial footpath for decades, to create the home’s main entrance off Mill Lane.
Network Rail initially objected, saying it needed enough space to raise or demolish the bridge before installing overhead cables for new electric trains which are expected to be rolled out in 2018.
Later, the company said it could lower the track instead, which would only require the eastern half of the plot so it was happy for Henthames to take the remainder.
However, Henley town councillors say the land shouldn’t have been transferred until after the electrification and have criticised the Land Registry for not seeking their views.
The council’s planning committee voted to oppose the handover but was unaware that at the time the deal had already been completed.
Henley Mayor Julian Brookes urged a more cautious approach because the area is prone to flooding.
In 2014, Mill Lane residents were forced out of their homes by rising water and Henley Town Football Club’s Triangle ground had to shut.
Councillor Brookes told the committee: “Network Rail should retain that land until the electrification is finished so that no mistakes are made. Until then, we must resist this. It’s a huge threat to electrification and we can’t allow that.
“The line has been there for hundreds of years so another couple will not cause too many problems. Once the line is electrified, we can work out what to do next.”
This week, Councillor Brookes said the committee would discuss its next step but he feared there was little that could be done.
He said: “We sent our comments to the Land Registry but there’s no way they could have received them in time. I’m obviously very disappointed in their actions and surprised that they didn’t seek our views.”
Councillor Stefan Gawrysiak, who is a town and district councillor, said: “We believed we had time to submit our thoughts but, sadly, it seems like a done deal. It’s very frustrating that our concerns weren’t taken into account.”
Patricia Mulcahy, chairwoman of the Henley Branch Users’ Group, said: “I have seen an email from Network Rail in which they say they can electrify the line by lowering the track instead of raising the bridge.
“However, we are concerned about the risk of flooding. Until Network Rail has carried out a full engineering survey they’re in no position to say that there’s no danger of that.
“The transfer of that land should have been held off. The last thing we want is for them to turn around in a few years and say, ‘oops, sorry, we can’t actually carry out the electrification’.
“The Land Registry has made a fair decision based on the evidence it received but I sincerely hope this doesn’t cause problems in future.”
Michelle Thomas, a member of the pressure group Keep Henley Active, which wants the gym re-opened, said: “Henthames is behaving in a particularly heinous and downright irresponsible manner by pursuing this land grab.
“They acted before they even had planning permission and have now potentially put the whole community at risk of losing a more reliable electrified train service. Our group has taken professional advice from a surveyor and we’re told you should never release land until you’ve met any future objectives it might be needed for.
“It’s the commonly done thing and good, sensible practice. Until the electrification is complete, Network Rail shouldn’t have jeopardised land that could be crucial to its operations.
“We’re told it usually defends every scrap of land, right down to the last drainage ditch or blade of grass. It’s baffling that it didn’t take the same approach in this case — we can only assume it didn’t have the staff or the funding and wanted a quick resolution.”
Keep Henley Active has applied to Oxfordshire County Council, the highways authority, for the footpath across the site to be formally recognised.
The group has identified several people who will testify that they have used it for many years without being challenged by the landowner, which is necessary for a successful claim.
Henthames did not respond to a request for a comment.
A Land Registry spokeswoman said only Network Rail and Oxfordshire County Council, the highways authority, were notified as they were the only bodies who might have had a legal interest in the land.
She said planning matters or engineering works were unlikely to affect the registry's decision as it aimed to resolve the question of ownership, not intended use.