Nettlebed legal dispute resolved in council’s favour by Supreme Court

Oxfordshire County Council has won a legal dispute in the Supreme Court as regards land at Nettlebed School in Oxfordshire.

The Supreme Court has unanimously allowed an appeal from the council relating to whether land gifted to Oxfordshire County Council for use as a school reverted to the donor’s estate when the school ceased to operate from the land in question

In 1914 and 1928, Mr Fleming conveyed land in Nettlebed to Oxfordshire County Council as a site for an elementary school (the “Fleming site”). The school expanded, and in the 1990s the council decided it should relocate to a new building with improved facilities. The council’s plan was to sell the Fleming site, after the move, to help pay for the costs of the new school premises. In February 2006 the pupils moved to the new premises and, in September 2007, almost all of the Fleming site was sold to a property developer for £1,243,819.50.

Four of Mr Fleming’s heirs brought a challenge against Oxfordshire County Council. They claimed that legally any land donated for the establishment of a school reverted to the landowner (or his or her heirs) the moment that land ceased to be used for the purposes of the school. They claimed that moment had arrived when the council moved the pupils to the new premises in February 2006 – the Fleming site had been left empty and was no longer being used for the purposes of Nettlebed School.

The council disagreed, arguing that it had always been its intention to apply the proceeds of sale to the new premises and that, practically, the pupils needed to move before the old site was sold.

The heirs’ claim was rejected in the High Court, but that decision was reversed by the Court of Appeal. Oxfordshire County Council appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court unanimously allowed the appeal, saying that the Fleming site had not ceased to be used for the purposes of Nettlebed School, even after the school had moved, as it was always the council’s intention to use the proceeds of the sale to pay off the cost of the new school premises.

Anita Bradley, Oxfordshire County Council’s Director for Law and Governance, said: “We are pleased that this legal situation has now been fully resolved and that the ultimate result is that there has been no cost to the taxpayer.”