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Beaches are capable of being registered as "village greens'', a High Court judge declared today.
But the ruling was no comfort to the users of the West Beach at Newhaven, East Sussex, which was involved in a test case that clarified the law.
Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting in London, said the words used by Parliament "to define 'town or village green' are broad enough to permit the registration of a tidal beach'', provided certain tests were met.
The ruling could have an impact on many beaches around the country.
But the judge quashed the registration of the West Beach as a village green by East Sussex County Council because it fell within the port area of Newhaven.
The judge held that village green status was "incompatible with the statutory purpose for which the land is held''.
His ruling was a victory for the beach owner, Newhaven Port and Properties Ltd, which argued that the registration should be quashed because it had always been clear that the beach was a working area of the port.
A spokesman for East Sussex County Council said: "We are disappointed with the High Court decision and we will now be looking in detail at the ruling before we can make a decision on how to proceed.''
Today's ruling is the culmination of a battle between local people and the owners, who fenced off the beach in 2008 for health and safety reasons.
Newhaven Town Council pressed for the beach to be reclassified as part of a campaign to get the sands reopened for public use.
To qualify for village green status, it had to show the stretch of foreshore, covering 15 acres at low water mark, had been used by local residents for "legitimate sports or pastimes'' for at least 20 years.
People scoured their photo albums for proof and recalled that, on Christmas Day 1974, the beach doubled up as a sports ground.
They produced proof of people fishing, walking, riding their bikes and playing cricket on the sands when the tide allowed.
Public inquiry inspector Ruth Stockley, who conducted an inquiry in July 2010, recommended the registration be accepted, and it was approved by the county council's commons and village green registration panel in December 2010.
Charles George QC, appearing for the port authority, argued at a four-day hearing last November that the registration of a tidal beach as a village green was "absurd'' and was the result of applying a literal interpretation to section 15 of the Commons Act 2006, which could not have been intended by Parliament.
Mr George said the inappropriateness of the move was illustrated by the fact that all similar tidal beaches around the coast of England and Wales would be potentially registrable in the same way.
He said: "The true situation is that it never crossed anyone's mind that Bournemouth beach or Brighton beach might be village greens.''
Today Mr Justice Ouseley rejected his arguments, saying: "I can see no answer to the contention that the ordinary meaning of the words used by Parliament to define 'town or village green' are broad enough to permit the registration of a tidal beach, providing that the nature, quality and duration of the recreational user satisfies the statutory test.''
The judge said: "Parliament has chosen its words, on three occasions, so as to exclude any notion of a requirement that the registered green be 'grassy` or 'traditional'.
"There is no need for such words to be implied to avoid absurdity or to give effect to a clearly-ascertained Parliamentary purpose.
"The nature, quality and duration of use was crucial: the quality of the land was unimportant.''
Officials at Newhaven Town Council said they were taking legal advice following the ruling.
Town councillor Carla Butler said: "This is a devastating blow to the morale of people in Newhaven, who have used the beach in exactly the same way as a village green is used for generations.
"At last week's Big Planning consultation event held by the town council to find out what people most wanted to see in Newhaven, the one thing that local people voted for more than anything else was to see the beach reopened.
"NPP has won this stage of the battle on a legal technicality, but even the judge says that he would have preferred to hold that the beach was registrable.
"In all the years that the public have used the beach there has been no conflict between the operation of the port and the use of the beach.
"Indeed, photographic evidence was submitted by the town council in support of its application showing local families playing on the sand whilst a jack-up barge was moored there in the past.''
Mayor of Newhaven Steve Saunders said: "The recently produced port masterplan does not show the West Beach being used for any purposes at all.
"The town council strongly supports the current efforts being made by the port authority to regenerate the port and their bid for business from the proposed Rampion wind farm.
"However, we continue to see no reason why the use of the beach by the public should jeopardise this.
"I call upon NPP to do the right thing by the people of Newhaven. Reopening the beach would immediately win the port authority huge public support.
"The town council continues to welcome discussions on the best way forward to restore public recreational use of the beach whilst safeguarding the operations of the port.''