Favoured and indulged

Who is holding Newcastle’s freemen to account? Rachel Locke reports

Two of Newcastle’s most powerful civic institutions marked their 800th anniversary this year: the mayoralty of the city and its freemen. Both have played an important role in the shaping of the city. But while the modern-day powers of the mayor are relatively clear-cut, those of the freemen are not so perspicuous.

To understand the freemen we must delve deep into their roots which lie in the free mercantile community of the burgesses: traders who secured exemption by royal charter in 1216 from what they believed to be unfair taxes under the rule of King John.

After the granting of the charter, Newcastle was governed by a mayor and a council of burgesses. These burgesses, or freemen, were highly influential in the election of the mayor and in selecting and electing members of parliament.

Today the freemen exist as a charitable organisation and conservation body; hereditary guardians of Newcastle’s parks and green spaces, most notably the Town Moor, for which they still own the “herbage” or grazing rights – a privilege enshrined in an act of parliament. Though these rights are reserved strictly for freemen, in practice “stints” of land are sub-let to farmers; profits go to the Town Moor Money Charity for “the relief of poverty of poor freemen”.

Photograph by Conor Lawless, under Creative Commons licence

Photograph by Conor Lawless, under Creative Commons licence

Newcastle’s Town Moor comprises eight moors and at 1,000 acres, it is bigger than New York’s Central Park. Once the backdrop for riots, rebellions and hangings, it is now celebrated as a “jewel in the crown” and the “green lung” of Newcastle. Rumour has it the moor was once planted with great oaks, whose lofty trunks were used for buildings in the old town and furnished majestic ships that set sail from the banks of the Tyne.

However, the freemen’s reluctance for tree planting in recent times has rendered the Town Moor more of a “green desert”. In 2003, it was nominated as one of Britain’s ‘wasted spaces’.

The Town Moor Act, the statute relating to the powers of the freemen, was updated in 1988 to preserve the principle that the land, although jointly managed by Newcastle City Council and the freemen, would be maintained as an area of open space “in the interests of the inhabitants of the city so it shall continue both to satisfy the herbage right and to afford air and exercise for the enjoyment of the public”. In fact, only a small percentage of the land has been given to benefit the citizens of Newcastle. Over 100 years ago, the freemen released land from the Town Moor and Leazes Park to accommodate the Royal Victoria Infirmary and St James’ Park.

Such is the protection afforded to the space that “no person shall enclose, encroach upon or build on any part of the Town Moor”. Another tenet of the act is that “land designated for allotments shall not be used for any other purpose unless permission is granted by the Secretary of State”. Any development requires mutual agreement between the freemen and the council and, as such, there have been relatively few encroachments. But dual management inevitably leads to conflict and the relationship between the council and the freemen is no exception.   Several attempts have been made to “buy out” the freemen over the years, but proposed infringements have been met with significant local opposition.

Forty years ago concerns were raised over the environmental impact of the proposed Central Motorway East, which would eat into land at Brandling and Exhibition parks. Following two public inquiries, it was deemed sufficient public open space would be made available to compensate for the loss. Soon after, and with the permission of the freemen, a contract was awarded to commence the works.

In 1997, with the aid of several pressure groups, the Friends of Leazes Park group defeated Newcastle United’s plans for a 55,000-seat stadium, which would devour acres of precious parkland at Castle Leazes Moor. The football club proposed a land trade-off as part of the proposals but 18,000 people signed a petition against the scheme and, with the threat of a public inquiry looming, plans were scrapped and the decision was made to extend the existing ground.

In August this year, almost 2,000 people descended on the moor to publicly oppose plans for a huge motorway-style junction that would see the loss of vast swathes of Little Moor and Dukes Moor. Locals tied ribbons around avenues of trees and wielded banners and placards: “Hands off our Town Moor” and “Trees not Tarmac”. Thanks to a powerful public spirit, the plans were overturned. Now the council has invited community representatives to form a working group, tasked with bringing forward alternative proposals to ensure greater protection for the Town Moor.

But conspicuous by their absence were the Town Moor’s guardians: the freemen.

Although the land is registered commons, the freemen are quick to assert their role as curators and to remind the good people of Newcastle of the rights they reserve. Their message is clear: without them, the Town Moor would not be there. And if their cattle do not graze, there will be no Town Moor. Perhaps then, it should come as no surprise that their interests lie with their cattle and not Newcastle’s residents.

In accordance with the Town Moor Act, not all the land managed by the freemen is allotted for grazing. Parcels are leased for allotments, but over the last decade there has been a steep decline in land available for these important community spaces. Much of this loss is partly due to the removal of plots from freemen-controlled land. In its Allotment Strategy, the council set out its vision to protect the remaining allotment sites, through ongoing negotiation with the freemen.

Last year, Nuns Moor allotment site – believed to be the oldest in Newcastle – was closed without public consultation due to fears of contamination. The site provided a valuable wildlife habitat and attempts were made to clear the area in the middle of the breeding season. Many of the trees were 100 years old and were felled without a licence. The Forestry Commission is currently investigating whether there is a case for prosecution or a need to serve restocking notice, to ensure the planting of new trees. Despite the concerns of allotment holders and community groups, the freemen have given their assurances that the plots will be reopened. But with no concrete plans in place, there are fears the land could be returned to grazing.

One resident recalled the site before it was levelled. “The western edge of the allotments was a ribbon bluebell wood but this is now entirely cleared. A local councillor said that ‘the council are investigating’ but that is meaningless as it’s already lost.”

It is unclear whether Newcastle City Council – landowner under the Town Moor Act – has fully pursued the closure of the Nuns Moor site, but a freedom of information request revealed that the council did not believe there had been any violations of environmental law. The razing of the allotment appears to be contrary to several of Newcastle City Council’s strategies, including its Allotment Strategy and Tree Strategy, both of which set out the need to preserve these two vital assets.

Prior to the seemingly unmitigated loss at Nuns Moor, another of the city’s public assets – controlled by the freemen – was lost. Moorbank Botanical Gardens had been managed by Newcastle University since the 1920s. It was Newcastle’s “secret tropical garden”. A rare gem for the region, it was a hothouse of activity for botanists, artists and photographers and a unique location for educational visits. When Newcastle University relinquished its decades-old lease on the garden and the threat of closure loomed, there was public outcry. Thousands of people signed a petition urging the freemen to allow a third party to take over the site to ensure the future of the gardens. Phone calls, emails and letters went unanswered. The leader of the council wrote to the freemen to discuss the future of the site and received no response. The Friends of Moorbank, who had worked so hard to retain the gardens, grew frustrated by the lack of communication and drew up a business plan, only to have it written off by the freemen. The gardens were closed and the freemen took back possession of the site.

Over the years, concerns have been raised over the accountability of the freemen. “They’re a medieval institution, impervious to public opinion,” I was told. Perhaps there’s some truth in this: after all it wasn’t until 2009 that women were granted the honour of “freelage”, a tradition historically bestowed to male heirs. The Town Moor Joint Working Group, which comprises members of the council and the freemen’s stewards committee meets on a quarterly basis to discuss Town Moor affairs. Although not a private meeting, the freemen are keen to exclude members of the public from attending.

In essence, there is a large part of Newcastle which appears to be under the control of a body that cannot be held publicly accountable. In 1834, a letter to the freemen addressed them as a “favoured and indulged order from time immemorial”. Has anything really changed?

Though the freemen are primarily a conservation body, there are those who believe their influence extends beyond the guardianship of green spaces. It is plausible that, in the mists of time, the respective rights and responsibilities of the freemen and the council have become dimmed by the distant past. During my research I have found people exercising caution in speaking about their dealings with the freemen. But I have also spoken to freemen who told me they attend meetings twice a year and know very little about what goes on behind closed doors, many of whom would take offence at the mere suggestion that they are in any way part of an elite, exclusive order. The freemen remain an influential body, but we can only guess as to how their powers are exerted. As Leonardo Da Vinci said: “Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”


Read more in The Northern Correspondent #9